Turns out, there was no happy ending, only a long, sad breakup.
Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona’s most expensive signing ever, has shipped off to Germany to play for Bayern Munich. There, Coutinho will attempt to right a listing career that saw him go from one of the hottest transfer targets in the world, to someone no club seemed to want. A precipitous fall from grace only 19 months after a union that never really should’ve happened.
It’s worth pointing out that Coutinho wasn’t exactly bad for Barcelona. In 52 league appearances in Spain, the 27-year-old scored 13 goals and recorded seven assists, while adding another three goals and three assists in last season’s Champions League. In Barcelona’s possession-heavy system, Coutinho’s passing numbers improved across the board from his time at Liverpool: his passing percentage hovered around 80 percent at Liverpool, but he completed close to 88 percent of his passes in La Liga last season. He did shoot less frequently for Barcelona than for the Pool Boys (about one fewer shot a game), but that’s to be expected when Luis Suárez and especially Lionel Messi are around to gobble up most of the shots.
Those are fine numbers for a midfielder, but that’s where the problems began and ended for Coutinho: he wasn’t played as a midfielder, but rather as a left winger in a Barcelona system that had to rely on him to provide some pace and directness. That’s never been his game. At his peak in Liverpool, he played more as a narrow left midfielder, almost as a traditional No. 10 cutting in onto his right foot to rip those trademark Coutinho bangers:
Instead of adjusting the system to fit Coutinho, he was touted as a successor to Andrés Iniesta. This was wrong-headed from the start. Iniesta and Coutinho bear only superficial likenesses to each other as players. Though they both are small, dribble-loving, incisive pass–pinging attack-minded midfielders, their much more substantial differences—mainly that Iniesta has always been one to facilitate play for others with lightning-quick passes and decisions with the team’s overall structure in mind, and Coutinho is one who plays for himself by holding onto the ball for as long as it takes for him to find room to pop off a shot or hit a home-run pass into the box—made the prospect of Coutinho becoming the new Iniesta highly unlikely.
For better and for worse, the Coutinho-as-New-Iniesta experiment didn’t last very long. Barcelona swapped their 4-4-2 formation of the 2017-18 season—a formation in which Coutinho actually played very well in his first months at Barça as a free midfielder out wide on the left—for their traditional 4-3-3 in 2018-19, and it became clear almost immediately that Coutinho couldn’t hack it in central midfield. Coutinho lost his starting spot there to Arthur, a completely different type of player who provided everything Coutinho couldn’t. From then on, Coutinho played exclusively on the left of a front three.
This might have seemed on paper to have been a good transition, since it was more or less in that same role where Coutinho had his peak performances in Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, but he had stiff competition there from Ousmane Dembélé, who started the 2018-19 season on fire. Benched from the starting lineup, pushed out of the position he was signed to play, and providing redundant skills in the role he was now playing (everything Coutinho most likes doing as a forward is done exponentially better by Messi), Coutinho played like a man completely shorn of confidence. Even when he did regain his starting spot on the wing, mostly due to Dembélé’s recurrent injuries, Coutinho never looked like the superstar he was in England.
Coutinho and Bayern are both hoping that the Brazilian’s bad times in Barcelona were more a reflection of a poor fit and cratered confidence than any lasting flaw in the player’s game. Germany could very well prove an ideal place to get him back to his best. Coutinho could thrive at Bayern as a traditional attacking No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 attack. He could also tuck in and play the narrow left wing role he played at Liverpool. It wouldn’t even be a shocker to see him doing well as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 that, unlike Barça’s, prioritizes verticality over careful buildup play. Coutinho has options, is the point, and at a club where he is automatically the most gifted midfielder on the roster, he should receive every opportunity to show his best.
This split should benefit all three parties involved: The Bayern deal—an €8.5 million loan fee which includes an option to buy for €120 million next summer—gives Barcelona a break from the Coutinho melodrama, as well as his wages. Bayern basically take a flier on a potential superstar at his cheapest possible point without investing too much upfront—a virtual carbon copy of their James Rodríguez experiment. (That one didn’t quite work out as well as anyone hoped, but trying again is smart.) As for the player himself, maybe this move revitalizes Coutinho’s career. Or, maybe it shows that he only really thrived in one specific system under Klopp. The former seems a safer bet, though; Coutinho has been confident, empowered, and very good for Brazil since moving to Barcelona, both at last year’s World Cup and this summer’s Copa América.
The talent is clearly still there, but talent can’t do much on its own, except trick Barcelona into expensive disasters. That’s not Coutinho’s fault, and being freed from the pressure cooker of expectations in Catalonia could be the most important part of unlocking his game once again. Maybe Bayern can figure it out this season and save him the ignominy of being the world’s most expensive bust. One thing is clear, though: Coutinho never should have gone to Barcelona, a club that couldn’t wait to smash a costly square peg into a very specific round hole.