Transfer windows are a funny sort of time for football fans. As a fan, you may begin one completely mesmerized by your favorite players in your team but by the time the window starts to shut down, those same favorites turn into thankless villains. This woe has befallen many a football fan this transfer window, none more so than the Liverpool fans.
Liverpool targets Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk have kicked up enough trouble, by literally kicking team mates or by sulking heavily. But the Reds have not been able to prize them away from RB Leipzig and Southampton respectively. It appears that Liverpool have also given up their chase for now.
On the other hand, Liverpool’s own talisman for the last few seasons is being lured away from the north-west of England to the warmer climes of Catalunya. Philippe Coutinho is in Barcelona’s sights and it seems that he has fallen for them. When Barcelona come calling, very few players in the world can ignore them. But when they are desperate to replace a star and come calling, it is almost impossible for any player or club to ignore them.
Transfer rumours concerning Coutinho are being churned out faster than Neymar’s wages in Paris. Spanish and Catalan press has almost a daily story on how Coutinho’s relatives think that Liverpool is mistreating the Brazilian, or how he is willing to forego a national team spot in next year’s World Cup to ensure that he gets his desired move to Barcelona. Apparently Coutinho has also issued a transfer request and a “will-not-play-for-Liverpool” ultimatum.
The rejections and denials coming from Liverpool’s side seem to be getting meeker by the day. From a brief statement stating no interest in selling Coutinho from the Reds’ owners to Jurgen Klopp’s “we will see after 31st August”, the resolve to keep their sulking star seems to be waning.
If Coutinho does leave, it would mean a double whammy for Liverpool fans. On one hand, they seem unable to weaken Leipzig and Southampton’s resolve but on the other, FSG seem to be twirling the idea of cashing out on Coutinho, despite their statement. The other problem for Liverpool is that only a fortnight remains in the current transfer window and they do not have enough time left to identify a replacement and then pursue the replacement. In fact, Liverpool fans are more miffed about Coutinho’s bad timing in demanding the transfer than his wish to be transferred.
I am sure Liverpool’s scouts are hard at work trying to identify a replacement for Coutinho. In this piece, I am trying to do something similar but instead of actual scouting, I will use a few stats to see who could fill the void that is left by Coutinho.
When he is on song, Coutinho is quite a magician and he is capable of doing quite a few things extremely well. But if we try to identify what makes him so indispensable for Klopp, a couple of his traits seem to be the most valuable. First of them is his goal scoring ability, especially from outside the penalty box. Last season he contributed 13 goals scored and 7 assisted in 31 league appearances. This ability to shoot well from distance has also helped him become the preferred free kick taker for Liverpool.
In addition to his goal scoring ability, he possesses great flair and creativity. He is good at dribbling past opponents, and possesses the eye for a killer pass. These abilities have led him to assist 7 goals last season and provide 2.1 key passes every league match.
It is debatable whether it can be done but to replace Coutinho, Liverpool will focus on these two aspects of the potential candidates. We will also do the same.
I drew up a list of all (188 in all) advanced midfielders and wingers playing in the top five European leagues and collected several stats related to these two traits for all of them. Most promising names that came up for me were – Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Lucas Moura (PSG), Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta), Felipe Anderson (Lazio) and Jean Michael Seri (Nice).
While drawing up the list, I excluded players whose transfer to Liverpool is almost next to impossible. So, I removed players from other Premier League top six, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. One can argue that even Lucas Moura falls under that category but there have been a few rumors linking Liverpool with him in the past and in the current PSG set up, he might not really be a first-choice player.
So, how do these players compare with Philippe Coutinho? Let us take a look. The stats below are for the 2016 calendar year for club and country.
In terms of goals, out of this list, only Insigne shoots more than Coutinho (4.16 shots per 90 vs 3.67) but all of them have a better shot on target % than Coutinho’s 33.3 %. But, Coutinho’s 0.44 goals per 90 minutes is only bettered by Lucas Moura’s 0.48 per 90 minutes. Both Insigne and Alejandro Gomez are level with Coutinho. On the other hand, Seri and Anderson seem to be less inclined to shoot and hence are less likely to score, as shown by their 0.16 and 0.13 goals per 90 minutes.
However, in terms of direct free kicks, none of these players are as good as Coutinho, who shoots 0.28 direct free kicks per 90 minutes, with a 30% on target accuracy. Insigne takes more free kicks (0.36 per 90) but is considerably less accurate (17.65%). Seri and Moura are almost as accurate (28.57%) but perhaps are not the first-choice free kick takers in their current teams.
Among these players, Coutinho leads in terms of assists per 90 minutes at 0.31, but is followed by Gomez at 0.28, Anderson at 0.27 and Insigne at 0.25. In terms of smart passes (a Wyscout metric similar to Key passes) only Anderson is better than Coutinho (3.96 smart passes vs 3.73 per 90). Anderson’s smart pass accuracy is also a bit better than Coutinho’s.
Coutinho is a better final third passer than almost all of these others, contributing 10.31 final third passes at a 78.45% accuracy. Seri provides more passes in the final third (10.52) but at a slightly lower accuracy.
What this brief analysis tells us is that no one player can fill both the roles vacated by Coutinho – that of a goal scorer and a creator. In terms of goal scoring Lorenzo Insigne seems like a very good player to replace Coutinho but in terms of chance creation, may be Felipe Anderson is better. If nothing else, this analysis at least tells us why Coutinho seems quite indispensable for Liverpool.
In an ideal scenario, Liverpool would be able to hold Coutinho for at least a season more and he too – like Suarez in 2013-14 (after a brief sulk about a move to Arsenal)- would continue to light up the Premier League and Anfield with his wonderful skills.
But if FSG and Klopp sense that their grip over Coutinho is indeed loosening, they might want to take a look at possible replacements. I do feel that these 4-5 players, along with a few like Pulisic and Florian Thauvin might feature in any list drawn for this purpose.
(Edit: After the submission of this piece, PSG apparently declared that Julian Draxler is unwanted and is available for a reasonable fee. Indeed, I hoped to see Draxler in my list of players but he did not feature because he did not play more than 3000 minutes. His shots per 90 is 1.74 and smart passes per 90 is 2.19. These numbers can put him in the company of the players mentioned above. If we overlook the number of minutes, Draxler seems like a good potential candidate. Neymar seems to have caused the Coutinho problem for Liverpool and he is the one to supply the replacement as well.)