Philippe Coutinho was close to securing the ultimate redemption. Any lingering bitterness among Liverpool fans looked on the verge of being emphatically dispelled when the Brazilian doubled Aston Villa’s lead against Manchester City on the final day of the season, bringing the Premier League within touching distance.
Villa were ultimately unable to hold out, and Coutinho’s hopes of reingratiating himself at Anfield disappeared along with Liverpool’s title dreams. But with Sadio Mané set to move to Bayern Munich with the blessing and goodwill of fans, it would be understandable if the diminutive playmaker felt a little aggrieved.
There are certainly differences in the manners of departure. There have been no mysterious ‘injuries’ in Mané’s case. Coutinho, at best, was poorly advised. But the transfer realities are not so different as to explain the huge contrast in fan response.
READ MORE:From Ronaldo comparisons to lockdown regime – how Darwin Núñez became a £ 64m Liverpool player
READ MORE: Liverpool beat Man City and Bayern Munich to 12-goal starlet Pep Lijnders tipped for pre-season
After all, the sale of Mané is certainly driven by player power. There is no reason why Liverpool would be especially keen to get rid of one of their best players, especially at the relatively low price agreed with Bayern Munich. Indeed, the cost is the main difference: Coutinho never let his contract run into its final year, and therefore secured the club a huge payday when he decided it was time to go.
Nor can the difference be a matter of longevity. Coutinho was one of the club stalwarts at the time of his departure, having been at Liverpool for five years. Mané has been at Anfield one year longer, but surely this single season cannot make all the difference.
Mané gets credit in the bank for being professional to the last, and his performance as a false nine during the second half of last season was certainly impressive. But it should not be forgotten that Coutinho produced his best ever Liverpool form in the final six months. And while the infamous back injury was an unfortunate stain on his last half-season with the club, it should not erase all that went before.
There were certainly plenty of exquisite moments. Mané gets the benefit of being associated with far more success, having had the good fortune of being at the club during a trophy-laden period. But were his individual contributions significantly superior to those of Coutinho? The Brazilian will finish on more assists from 68 fewer games, having played in a worse side.
None of this is meant to denigrate Mané, who will rightly go down as a Liverpool icon. As part of a triumvirate with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, he changed the modern history of the club. Coutinho will certainly regret not staying to be a part of that. But what made him more obligated to stay than the man now seeking a move?
Ultimately, the most convincing conclusion is that the backlash against Coutinho came primarily from a place of insecurity. Liverpool, still trophyless under Jürgen Klopp but moving in the right direction, did not want to believe that their best players could still be lured away by ‘bigger’ sides. With the club now firmly established as among the best in the world, the altogether less loaded idea that Mané simply wants a ‘new challenge’ is far more palatable.
These players are all people, with real hopes and emotions. Whatever the legitimacy of Coutinho’s back injury, his dream of playing for Barcelona was genuine, just as it is for many South Americans. With Mané now set to have his wishes honored with minimal fuss, it is increasingly hard to justify the visceral response to the last big Liverpool departure.
Whether it is in pursuit of a dream or a new challenge, players sometimes want to leave Liverpool. It is an increasingly rare ambition, and that is testament to the wonderful progress the club has made – Mané takes a fair amount of credit for that transformation. But while the Coutinho move was a bitter disappointment, perhaps it is time he takes his place among the fondly-remembered players to have graced Anfield.