Who will win the Liverpool-Barcelona standoff over Philippe Coutinho?

Henry Bushnell
Philippe Coutinho has handed in a transfer request at Liverpool. (AP)

On the morning of the opening day of the 2017-18 Premier League season, Philippe Coutinho has rocked Liverpool by handing in a transfer request at the most inconvenient of times. That’s according to several reports early Friday out of England, Brazil and Spain that cite Coutinho’s desire to join Barcelona amid strong interest from the Catalan club.

Liverpool initially flat-out denied the reports. The club claimed it had received no such request from its Brazilian star. Later, reports emerged that it had rejected the request.

Liverpool’s ownership group also issued a statement reiterating the club’s resolute stance that Coutinho is not for sale. “We wish to offer clarity as regards our position on a possible transfer of Philippe Coutinho,” the statement read. “The club’s definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool Football Club when the summer window closes.”

And so we have a standoff: Barcelona wants to buy, and has reportedly offered a nine-figure fee. Coutinho wants Liverpool to accept the offer. Liverpool has refused to even consider it.

Who will back down first?

Liverpool’s refusals and denials have been distinctly and pointedly fierce. Up until Friday, it still appeared the Reds would be able to hold onto a player who is arguably their most important.

Coutinho’s request, though, alters the mood, even if only slightly. It reportedly came, via email, in response to Liverpool’s statement — not the other way around. Spanish journalist Guillem Balague tweeted that Coutinho “would do whatever it takes” to leave Liverpool.

Coutinho isn’t the type to force through a move in this manner. His personality seemingly doesn’t jell with the media circus that will inevitably follow a protracted saga. If Coutinho leaves Liverpool at the climax of such a saga, it just wouldn’t feel right — not from a fan’s perspective, and probably not from Coutinho’s perspective either.

But that sentiment clashes with the transfer request. According to The Guardian’s Ed Aarons, “Coutinho [is] said to be unhappy with the way Liverpool have handled the negotiations. He had so far refused to agitate for a move despite having informed the club of his desire to join Barça, instead opting to wait for the situation to be resolved.

“Yet with Liverpool steadfastly refusing to soften their position in the face of a third offer, Coutinho has decided to attempt to take matters into his own hands.”

Sky Sports News aired comments that it attributed to a “family friend” of Coutinho’s. Via The Telegraph: “Philippe has tried very hard to find an amicable solution to the situation but to no avail. He has tremendous love for the club and its fans, but like Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez have pointed out in the past Liverpool does not let its players leave on amicable terms.”

The request does not put Liverpool in any sort of official bind, nor does anything Coutinho says, nor anything his camp leaks to the media. Coutinho is under contract, and Liverpool will have final say on his future. But surely somewhere along the continuum of Coutinho’s discontent is a tipping point that would compel the Reds to sell.

That said, they have gone to much greater lengths in the past to keep hold of players. Back in 2013, Arsenal triggered Luis Suarez’s £40 million release clause. Liverpool, though, somehow still fought to keep Suarez, and succeeded. The two parties then agreed to a contract extension; Suarez stayed for one more season, tore up the Premier League, and set sail for Barcelona the following summer.

There is no reason a similar scenario couldn’t unfold with Coutinho. Should Liverpool not back down and keep him past the the close of the transfer window, Coutinho surely wouldn’t refuse to play. In Liverpool’s dream scenario, it maintains its stance, Coutinho comes back into the fray, spearheads a successful season, and then leaves the following summer for a price similar to or in excess of the €100 million figure currently floating around.

At the very least, the club’s unyielding posture on the matter will force Barcelona to up its bid. It seems unlikely Coutinho’s demands move the needle. With the season so near, Liverpool has little time to find a replacement, and therefore little incentive to sell. Barcelona’s offer will likely have to blow the Merseyside club away.

But after the Neymar sale, Barcelona has the money to blow Liverpool away. And the Reds surely know that. That’s likely one of the reasons they are playing hardball.

Despite Coutinho’s transfer request, Liverpool remains in a position of power in these three-way negotiations. It has shown no signs of backing down. It will likely require significantly more pressure, either in the way of a Coutinho protest or an improved bid from Barcelona, to pry the Brazilian away from Anfield.