Barcelona might covet Philippe Coutinho but Liverpool are in a position of strength 5 years ago

Barcelona might covet Philippe Coutinho but Liverpool are in a position of strength

“When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Eric Cantona.

To use Cantona's most famous quote as terms of reference, in recent years Liverpool have been the trawler, Barcelona and Real Madrid the seagulls and the Merseyside club's best players the sardines that have been thrown into the sea for the vultures hovering above to gobble up. Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Luis Suarez have all gone that way and now, predictably and inevitably, reports indicate that Philippe Coutinho could follow.

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The difference now, though, is that Liverpool are no longer easy meat. Where their best and most coveted player is concerned, they occupy a position of strength. The seagulls may not want to go elsewhere but they might have to.

For different reasons, Liverpool's weakness was there to be exploited when Barcelona came calling for Mascherano and Suarez and Real came for Alonso. Regardless of the breakdown in his relationship with Rafael Benitez, Alonso had to be sold in the summer of 2009 because Liverpool had to service their debts. The same applied to Mascherano 12 months later. These were not players sold at the right time, for the right price and with a view to reinvesting the proceeds to make improvements; they were financial sacrifices that were absolutely necessary.

La Liga's big two duly took advantage, signing two of world football's best midfielders of the modern era for a combined total of £50 million.

Juventus v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League FinalMascherano (c) and Suarez (r) won the Champions League together at Barcelona (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Since their moves, Mascherano and Alonso have, between them, won 18 major domestic honours in Spain and Germany and been Champions League winners three times. There is no question that the value in both deals belonged with the buyers. Real and Barcelona identified a distressed business and stripped it of two of its best assets. In doing so, they strengthened La Liga and weakened the Premier League in keeping with the dynamics of a relationship which sees them take only the very best from English clubs who are yet to show the kind of resistance needed to start turning the tide in their favour.

Liverpool were equally powerless three summers ago when Barcelona decided that they had to have Suarez. In fairness to Liverpool, this was a transfer that the Uruguay international had been seeking long before he joined them and one which his agent, Pere Guardiola, had sought to make possible in every contract he agreed with exit clauses being a condition of every contract that Suarez signed.

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From that point of view, the only way they could afford themselves any kind of protection was to ensure that if Suarez ever did get his dream move they would receive significant compensation, an objective they achieved when he was sold for £75 million just six months after signing a new contract with a vastly increased buyout clause.

Nevertheless, Suarez, like Alonso and Mascherano before him, was there for the taking. The same cannot be said of Coutinho. Liverpool are no longer under fiscal pressure. Under Fenway Sports Group (FSG), their owners, they have gone from the brink of administration to profit in the space of six years and are no longer at the mercy of financial institutions. For the first time in far too long, they are in a position in which they can repel interest in their best players.

Even if reports emanating from Spain suggesting Real and Barcelona both want Coutinho are accurate, and his form alone this season indicates there is every reason to believe there is something in them, Liverpool have no reason to fear that history is about to repeat itself. They are masters of their own destiny.

Liverpool v Hull City - Premier LeagueCoutinho has six goals in 12 games this season (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

That Coutinho does not have a buyout clause further strengthens their hand and as undeniably brilliant as the Brazilian now is, Liverpool should not reward him because the vultures are circling once more, they should only offer him a pay rise on their own terms. That, after all, is what being in a position of strength is all about.

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It is what players do for Liverpool and not fear that they could be lost to a rival that should most inform any future pay negotiations and on that basis Coutinho can justifiably expect a significant rise on his current £80,000 per week salary if and when he next agrees a deal.

In so many respects, Coutinho has become a symbol of what FSG want to achieve at Liverpool. Signed for a low fee (£8.5 million) at an age when his potential had not yet been realised, he represents the best of a transfer strategy which is becoming increasingly effective. Re-signed on improved terms three years later, the foresight of his retention underlined a growing awareness of the talent that Liverpool has at its disposal and the need to move swiftly and decisively to ensure it is not lost. Most importantly of all, he stands as the example of what they are trying to achieve on the pitch; an individual of beguiling ability who brings out the best in the team at the same time as the team brings out the best in him.

Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier LeagueMike Hewitt/Getty Images

If Liverpool's progress was to be embodied in a single individual it would be Coutinho and like his club, the former Inter Milan player needed the appointment of a top class manager to take him to the next level. The arrival of Jurgen Klopp has been another obvious positive for Liverpool, not to mention a further sign of FSG's growing understanding of the environment that they are operating in, and an additional spin off of his presence is that he is the kind of manager that top players find it difficult to walk away from.

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“Klopp gives me confidence,” Coutinho said by way of response when asked about interest from Spain at the weekend. He should also give Liverpool confidence for they now have a manager around whom they can build, one who players expect to improve under and enjoy playing for. But he is also – and this should not be forgotten regardless of their desire to keep Coutinho – the kind who would not be afraid to cash in on an individual if he believes it to be in the best interests of the club.

It is highly unlikely that he believes that time is approaching in Coutinho's case, particularly given the forward is just 24, but even if the moment does arrive when Klopp feels an offer from Real or Barcelona, should it ever come, is too good to turn down, Liverpool will at least be in a position to do business on their terms. As a sign of progress, that is one of the most telling of all. The seagulls might still follow, but the sardines will only be thrown into the sea because those on the trawler want to do so, not because they have to.

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