The fall of Philippe Coutinho: From Barcelona's record signing to unwanted by Aston Villa
It turns out the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. As Anfield says goodbye to one Brazilian star of the Jurgen Klopp era on Saturday, another will be conspicuous by his absence.
Philippe Coutinho will probably be relieved about that, in all honesty. Because while Roberto Firmino, his great pal, will receive the kind of send-off reserved for true Liverpool greats, a return to Merseyside for Coutinho this weekend would serve only to remind the Aston Villa man of what he could have won, and of how far his stock has fallen in the last five years.
At 30, these should be the prime years of his career, but instead Coutinho finds himself fighting against a rising tide, injured and out of favour at Villa, and unable to capture even some of the form which made him one of the world’s most sought-after, and most expensive, players at Liverpool.
Where, as they say, did it all go wrong?
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A messy Anfield divorce
When Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona in January 2018, it looked like a deal which might suit everybody. The player would get the chance to fulfil a lifelong dream, to chase the biggest prizes and to play alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the famous Blaugrana, while Barca would get a player at the peak of his powers, a supremely-skilled technician who could learn from, and then take over from, Andres Iniesta as their midfield schemer.
Liverpool, meanwhile, would get a record transfer fee, around £142 million ($176m) with add-ons included, which could be reinvested into Klopp’s squad. Coutinho had made clear his desire to leave the club the previous summer, even going down with a mysterious 'back injury' as Barca's interest intensified, and though he had returned to the team and performed well after initially being denied a transfer - he actually captained the Reds in his penultimate game for the club - it had been decided internally that Liverpool could handle his departure, and even thrive after it.
They did, too. The fee received for Coutinho effectively paid for the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, key players as the Reds became European, World and eventually Premier League champions.
They may have mourned the Brazilian’s departure at the time, but they certainly didn’t miss him thereafter.
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The dream that became a nightmare
At first glance, Coutinho and Barcelona looked like a perfect match. A technically-gifted, creative footballer joining a club which values technically-gifted, creative footballers more than any other? What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. The record books will tell you Coutinho won two La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey, as well as the Champions League, during his four years with Barca, but the reality is rather different.
For starters, that Champions League was won with Bayern Munich, whom he joined on loan after just one full season in Catalunya. And he was hardly a major player in those two league title wins, either, arriving halfway through the 2017-18 campaign and then scoring only five goals in 34 games as a Messi-led side defended its crown the following year.
In total, Coutinho managed 106 appearances in all competitions for Barca, only 70 of which were starts. He scored 28 goals, some of them spectacular, but in terms of taking over from Iniesta, he never came close.
Considering he was, and still is, the third most-expensive player in football history, his time at Camp Nou can only be considered a spectacular failure.
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The Munich detour
There is a certain irony that, having joined Barcelona to try and win the Champions League, Coutinho would have to leave on loan the club in order to do so. Despite winning the league title, his first full season in Spain was not a great one. He was part of the team which crumbled in that memorable semi-final against Liverpool at Anfield, and by the summer of 2019, with Antoine Griezman signed from Atletico Madrid in another ill-fated big-money deal, it became clear that Barca were willing to move Coutinho on.
Still, his move to Bayern surprised plenty. The Bundesliga side paid just under £8m ($10m) to loan him for the season. “A new challenge,” Coutinho called it, while Barca wished him “all the best in this new stage of his career.”
They were to be left embarrassed, though, after the quarter-finals of that season’s Champions League, which was played as a one-off tie due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Bayern beat Barcelona 8-2 in Lisbon, with Coutinho coming off the bench to score twice against his parent club. “I’m happy,” he said afterwards, and just 10 days later he would pick up a winners’ medal, appearing as a second-half substitute as Hansi Flick’s side defeated Paris Saint-Germain in the final.
Despite this, the Germans chose not to take up the option of signing him permanently that summer. Coutinho instead returned to Camp Nou, presumably a little sheepish whenever the previous season’s meeting was brought up.
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Having returned to Barcelona, Coutinho remained unable to stay fit and find his best form, struggling to nail down a regular starting spot during the 2020-21 campaign, in which he featured only 14 times in all competitions. It was a similar story the following season, and by January the Catalans were ready to give up on him once and for all.
A call from Steven Gerrard, his old team-mate at Liverpool, convinced him to return to the Premier League. Aston Villa, for sure, were not a club Coutinho ever imagined he’d be playing for, let alone at 29, but Gerrard’s presence and the chance to revive his career in a league where he’d previously thrived won the day and Coutinho signed, initially on a six-month loan. “He’s here and he’s perfect,” read the tweet from Villa announcing the deal.
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Struggling for consistency
Coutinho started well in the Midlands. He scored on his debut against Manchester United, and it looked initially as if Gerrard had pulled off a masterstroke. The familiar dribbles, killer passes and long-range curlers were back, and so was the smile and the hunger.
But having made his loan deal permanent last summer, at a cost of around £17m ($21m), Villa have seen precious little since. Gerrard was sacked in October, his inability to get a tune out of Coutinho held up as one of the key factors behind his dismissal. His successor, Unai Emery, has barely used the Brazilian. Coutinho’s only starts since Gerrard’s exit have been in the FA Cup defeat against League Two Stevenage in January, and in the 4-2 loss to Arsenal in February.
That, as it turns out, is the last time Villa fans saw him. A muscle injury has kept him sidelined since, with Emery confirming after his side’s win over Tottenham last weekend that Coutinho had suffered a setback, which is likely to keep him out for the remainder of the campaign.
What comes next?
It is fair to wonder, then, whether we have seen the last of Coutinho at Villa, and indeed the last of him as a top-level player.
He is still only 30, but it has been at least three years since he performed at anything like a consistent level. His final three seasons at Liverpool saw him score 38 goals and establish himself as an elite attacking midfielder, but the six campaigns since have brought only 43 goals and have chipped away significantly at that reputation.
With Emery set to be backed in the transfer market this summer, it is highly likely that Coutinho, on big wages and with three years left on his contract, will be sacrificed by Villa. The question is; who would take him? Who would be willing to gamble on him rediscovering that old magic?
It certainly won’t be Liverpool. The days when Coutinho lit up Anfield are long gone. This weekend, as Firmino, James Milner and Co. get their emotional farewell, they will feel like a lifetime ago.