Three days before Liverpool start their Premier League campaign, the club are embroiled in two extraordinary transfer stand-offs that show how players are shaping their futures by wielding increased power. British and Spanish media have reported that midfielder Philippe Coutinho wants to leave Anfield to join Barcelona, while Virgil van Dijk is keen to join Liverpool from Premier League rivals Southampton.
Each player is under contract until 2022, having signed extensions to their original contracts, and both clubs want them to stay.
But that does not mean the deals are dead, even though neither player has the sort of buyout clause that allowed Brazil forward Neymar to leave Barca, prompting the Spanish club to come calling for Liverpool’s Brazil midfielder.
“Ninety nine times out of 100 it is a power game, a case of who blinks first,” sports legal expert Richard Cramer of FrontRow Legal told Reuters.
“Player power is enormous. The reality is a club may make the right noises but player power is strong because a manager does not want a disillusioned player who can upset equilibrium in the dressing room and create disharmony. Players and agents are very experienced at forcing a situation.”
Former Liverpool player Steven Gerrard believes that in Coutinho’s case everything depends on how far the Brazilian is prepared to go to force a move.
“It comes down to Philippe Coutinho and his decision and what he’s prepared to do, what type of war he’s prepared to create to get out, because Liverpool won’t make it easy for him,” Gerrard, who is now Liverpool’s academy coach, told BT Sport.
Such “wars” are increasingly common in football and Van Dijk sparked his own this week after several weeks spent training away from the first team. He has now requested a transfer and revealed his unhappiness by releasing a public statement.
“I have been left frustrated by the club’s position that I am not for sale and am disappointed that enquiries from multiple top clubs have been consistently rebuffed,” said Van Dijk, who is fit again after an injury cut short his 2015-16 season.
Although the Dutch international did not mention Liverpool in his statement, Southampton reported the Merseyside club to the Premier League earlier in the trasnfer window for an alleged illegal approach to the centre back.
Liverpool subsequently apologised and said they had ended their interest in the player. However, British media say they are keen to rekindle it should Southampton agree.
That may not be possible given the original “tapping up” allegation. Under Premier League rules, negotiations over personal terms can only begin once a fee with the seller is agreed, but few clubs adhere to the protocol.
The two deals are sensitive for Liverpool, who are treading a fine line between keeping their own key player and acquiring another, particularly after their failure to sign Nabi Keita, who Red Bull Leipzig have refused to sell – at least for now.
In most cases players and agents use their power to force moves.
FrontRow Legal’s Cramer does not believe much can be done to make contracts more enforceable unless players are made to sit them out in the reserves, an unsatisfactory result for all parties.
“Players are very highly valuable commodities. You would not want any of your most valuable assets doing nothing,” he said, adding that most players eventually get their way.
Precedent suggests that, for all Liverpool’s bullishness, they will end up selling Coutinho, with Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling all having left the club in similar circumstances.
The one exception was Liverpool’s former captain and talisman Gerrard, who almost joined Chelsea in 2005 after saying he wanted to leave. But as a Liverpool-born player, his situation was clouded by loyalty to his home-town club.
“It’s very, very difficult,” Gerrard said of Coutinho’s situation. “Especially South American players who always go on record and say it’s a dream of theirs to play for Barcelona.”
Van Dijk appears certain to leave Southampton, although his destination may depend on whether they will sell to a club who already have four ex-Saints players in the first team. Chelsea may therefore be a more palatable alternative.
The transfer window closes at the end of August.