The situations of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho are alarmingly similar, but they have been dealt with significantly differently by both clubs.
Both players are their respective clubs’ prized asset and while both teams would have been upset at the duo’s insistence they wanted out, they have certainly employed very different PR exercises.
In essence Coutinho, who has wanted out at Liverpool all summer appears to have been treated with kid gloves at Anfield, while Van Dijk, who wanted in at Anfield appears to have been hung out to dry.
There’s no doubt Liverpool made a huge mistake in their pursuit of Van Dijk this summer and one which American owners Fenway Sports Group must deeply regret – it’s not the type of bad PR they are used to.
The Reds flew Van Dijk to Blackpool, of all places, for a an unauthorised meeting with Jurgen Klopp, as Liverpool tried to persuade the player to move to Anfield. And after a long list of departures from Southampton to Liverpool, Klopp and Co. may well have got complacent.
Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane and Nathaniel Clyne have all followed a well-trodden path from St Mary’s to Anfield and Liverpool would have be forgiven in thinking Van Dijk would be another arrival from the south coast.
Enough was enough for the Saints though, who had got wind of the meeting and found out that Klopp had been regularly messaging their man in a bid to persuade him to jump ship.
The Premier League rule book states: “A contract player, either by himself or by any person on his behalf, shall not either directly or indirectly make any such approach as is referred to in Rule T.5 without having obtained the prior written consent of his club.”
The Saints immediately threatened to report Liverpool to the Premier League and Liverpool’s owners Fenway Sports Group backed off very quickly and stated they would not pursue Van Dijk until they were given official permission by Southampton.
That green light never arrived and so Klopp’s bid to draft in his one and only central defensive target ended without a bid being lodged for the £70million-rated defender. Pretty embarrassing really.
Van Dijk did not take it well and, according to Saints boss Mauricio Pellegrino he does not want to play for the team and was banished from training, leaving him to work on his fitness on his own.
“We continue in the same way,” said Pellegrino, when asked if the club would change its stance. “The situation is the boy is aside of the team because he doesn’t want to play for us.”
Pellegrino was asked what he could do to change Van Dijk’s mind: “I would like to persuade him that he’s important for us and the club will not sell him,” he said.
“We are expecting the best for everyone, even for Virgil, but he don’t want to be part of the team.
“This is the reason he is aside from the team.”
Compare that situation to Coutinho’s at Liverpool and it’s almost identical, but the two scenarios have been dealt with rather differently.
Klopp has, so far, refused to hang Coutinho out to dry and the Brazilian has not been ordered to train on his own, despite submitting a formal transfer request, just as Van Dijk did.
Coutinho, who was flying in pre-season, did though pick up a mystery back injury, which has forced him to sit out any Liverpool action this season. He did though come off the bench to score for Brazil last week, with the back injury put down to stress by the international team’s doctor: “Coutinho back problem? He is okay now. The back problem was a matter of stress, it was something emotional,” said Michael Simoni, who is believed to be a close friend of the player.
Coutinho’s injury considered, Klopp has remained calm throughout the saga and said over the weekend: “You shouldn’t believe everything that has been written by the press, or said by TV channels.
“Offers here and offers there, and a minute after that it should already be over. We are not at George Orwell, where everyone has everything immediately.
“We have exactly the situation that we wanted and no other: we still have a really good player in the squad.”
Both players, had almost certainly set their hearts on moves away this summer and Neymar claimed Coutinho had been left distraught after seeing his dream move to Catalonia collapse.
“Unfortunately, instead of being a happy time for him, for his family, it’s a moment of anguish, disappointment and sadness,” said his Brazil team-mate.
Both players are due back from international duty later this week and while Coutinho will likely be welcomed with open arms at Melwood, Van Dijk seems set to sneak in through the back door at Staplewood.
Klopp and Pellegrino will have to earn their corn in the next few weeks as they try and re-integrate the pair back into their first-team plans.
And if reports from Barcelona’s mouthpiece, Sport, are to be believed, Klopp may have a harder task than he had envisaged with talk of Coutinho refusing to play for the Reds in the Champions League. The Brazilian was named in Liverpool’s Champions League squad, but Sport claim he will make himself unavailable so that he does not get cup-tied in the UEFA competition, thus making a January move to Barca a more enticing proposition for the La Liga club.
Liverpool have managed a similar situation successfully before after Luis Suarez was denied his summer move to Arsenal. The Uruguayan then blasted 31 goals, despite being banned for the first six games in 2013/14 as Liverpool just missed out on winning the Premier League title.
It’s worth pointing out though that Suarez’s 2013/14 heroics only followed after he was told he could leave the club at the end of the season, which he did, as he transfered to Barcelona for £75milllion.
Neither Van Dijk or Coutinho look likely to be afforded that pleasure, with Southampton and Liverpool adamant their men are staying put, but while Van Dijk has largely been portrayed as a traitor, Coutinho’s image has remained blot-free.
As Stan Collymore pointed out in his Daily Mirror column: “Of the three [Van Dijk, Sanchez, Coutinho], I’d expect Van Dijk to have the toughest reception.
“He looked as if he’d gone a bit ‘Big Time Charlie’ when he started posting moody pictures on private jets and I wouldn’t expect old-school pros like Steven Davis to accept that.”
— Virgil van Dijk (@VirgilvDijk) June 8, 2017
There is of course every likelihood that Liverpool’s PR machine rolls into action later this week and Coutinho “returns cap in hand “with a club-contrived apology made public.
On reflection, the mysterious injury that was picked up by Coutinho at the start of August has proved to be be a masterstroke. Whether it was Coutinho’s doing, Liverpool-inspired or genuine it has certainly taken the heat out of a tense situation, immediately taking the onus away from the player and club.
It’s now down to Klopp and the club to continue the peacemaking on Coutinho’s return; Van Dijk though looks set for a rougher ride.