It may not be possible to feel sorry for someone who got to rake in tens of millions of dollars to live in Barcelona (with a brief sojourn to Munich) and not have to do much. And certainly Liverpool supporters won’t have any sympathy for Philippe Coutinho given the way he exited Anfield for the Nou Camp in 2018.
But Coutinho becoming perhaps the prime symbol of Barcelona’s mismanagement, largesse, and silliness isn’t really Coutinho’s fault. At least not entirely. It wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that Barca were so desperate to spend the money that they’d gotten from PSG for Neymar. It wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that Ousmane Dembélé, the other splurge from the Neymar bounty, had already proven to be perma-crocked by the time Coutinho even showed up. And it wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that he took what was a promotion, and it was back then, to play for a team that already had a ball-dominant player that made his skills redundant. In fact, they had THE ball dominant player in Lionel Messi. Imagine signing Russell Westbrook, in his prime, to be an off-the-ball screener and shooter. It was about as bad of a fit as possible.
It’s getting pretty small in the rearview now, but it was only four years ago that Coutinho was one of the Premier League’s most exciting midfielders. But Liverpool were geared for him, as he spent his best season playing in a forward line with Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino happy to play off of him. And a half-season playing behind those two and Mo Salah, all making runs for him to thread passes to or create space for his occasionally unconscionable shot selection. Liverpool also either surrounded or backed up Coutinho with an industrious midfield that could let him improvise and float while covering for him.
It didn’t help Coutinho’s rep that, when he left Liverpool, they used the cash to sign Virgil van Dijk immediately, watched him become maybe the best defender in the world, and then mosey to consecutive Champions League finals and a Premier League title. Nor did it help that Jurgen Klopp and the Liverpool braintrust never really felt the need to replace Coutinho, shunting creative responsibility to their fullbacks and leaving the midfield to be more energetic than inspirational.
Perhaps Barcelona thought simply putting Coutinho into the same lineup with Luis Suárez again would just recreate the magic they had in England at Liverpool. But they didn’t have the same spots on the field open. When at Liverpool, Coutinho played at the head of a midfield diamond behind Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. That’s not the formation Barca used. Ivan Rakitić was already where Coutinho would be in midfield, and on the left of the front three, one spends a lot of time watching Messi do his thing. Running into space isn’t Coutinho’s game.
Even in the ensuing years, Coutinho’s never been a high energy worker, which means the other two midfielders have to cover some ground. As Sergio Busquets’s odometer had several hundred thousand miles on it already, that wasn’t something Barca could provide either.
All of it has made Coutinho a figure of sadness for the past four seasons. He had a front row seat to their Champions League collapses against Roma and Liverpool. He was loaned out to Munich, which allowed him to be on the right side of another paddling of Barca, and he scored twice for Munich in that 8-2 win, but couldn’t stick in Munich. The rest of the time he’s been a bit-part player, as the memories of him winning games on his own fade more and more.
Still, Coutinho is (somehow) only 29, and that player has to be in there somewhere. And there may be no more perfect setting to get it out of him than playing for his former captain in Steven Gerrard and for a team that used to be built around a ball-dominant flair player who lived on the left side of the attack. That’s what Coutinho will find at Aston Villa.
Villa spent the past two seasons running through Jack Grealish, whose skill-set matches up pretty well with Coutinho’s. And there’s a variety of ways Gerrard could deploy him. On the left with Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins. Or behind them in the same midfield diamond that Gerrard played in with Coutinho. In John McGinn and Douglas Luiz or Jacob Ramsey, they have the hard working players to cover.
Coutinho is certainly the biggest name to arrive at Villa in some time, but it’s murky as to what Villa hope to achieve. They’re nine points out of the European spots. They’re 11 points clear of relegation. They’ve only brought Coutinho in on loan for the rest of the season, and it’s hard to fathom that even if things go well as can be they’re going to stump up a transfer fee and pay Coutinho’s wages to keep him permanently (rumored to be around $22 million a year) unless Coutinho is willing to take a massive pay cut.
Perhaps it’s just a statement of intent from both. Villa to prove to other players and agents that they have serious aims in the next few years under Gerrard. Coutinho to show that he can still be that player when the setting is right. Perhaps they can do each other a favor and help each other’s future, even if they’ll be away from each other.
It’s a boom-or-bust kind of deal, but Villa don’t have much to lose. Coutinho does though, which probably has Gerrard and Villa counting on him playing like it.