This past summer was a great one for aficionados of melodramatic transfer window soap operas. The most passion-inflamed and drama-filled ones were the two Barcelona-based series, NeyWatch and One Life to Liverpool. NeyWatch, you probably remember, starred the impossibly hunky Neymar and detailed the dissolution of what appeared to be his idyllic relationship with Barcelona as his head was turned by a sultry, wealthy, evil temptress played by PSG. One Life to Liverpool was a spin-off of NeyWatch and centered on the heartbroken and panicked Barcelona’s attempt to rebound from their ex’s jilting of them by wooing Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool, only for the English club to successfully thwart the seduction.
We now find ourselves in the winter window, and while it’s still early days, it appears that the second season of One Life to Liverpool will once again dominate the ratings as the most fascinating drama of the month.
When we last left our lead characters, Barça had pulled out every stop in the dumbest possible way in an effort to secure their chosen replacement paramour. Despite the incessant stories those close to the club fed the Spanish press about how supposedly imminent the Coutinho deal was (this transfer that never happened was regularly described as mere “horas” and “dias” away from being finished), the club failed to sign the Brazilian, just as the English press had said would happen all along.
This ultimately erroneous hullabaloo made the Spanish media look stupid, made Barcelona’s leadership look even worse, and left a sly but cautious smirk on the faces of Liverpool and their local reporters, pleased at being proven right but also wary of the prospect that the attempted homewrecking wasn’t truly over. Coutinho later admitted that he’d had his heart set on swapping Liverpool’s red jersey for Barça’s blaugrana one, and that he was deeply hurt when the move didn’t come to pass, but that he still loved being a Red and would give his all for the ‘Pool Boys as long as he was there. With the summer window closed and Coutinho maintaining his superstar form, the thinking was that the matter had been happily and officially tabled at least until next season.
But right as the January transfer window was set to open, a new batch of reports linking Coutinho to Barça began to stream forth from the Spanish media. At first this felt like more of the same kind of overly optimistic reporting as in the summer. Then, some eagle eyed internet sleuths noticed a curious segment on Nike’s official Barcelona sportswear page:
The company later took the part referencing Coutinho off of the page without mentioning why, and it’s clear that there was some kind of mistake there. Still, that Nike—the company that makes Barcelona’s kits and has Coutinho as one of their sponsored players—posted that message on their Barça page, and in a bunch of different languages to boot, it was hard to see this as some pure mishap. Immediately, the move felt much more possible than ever before.
Around that same time, the reports coming out of England adopted different tenor than they had during the summer. Previously in this transfer saga, almost every single British report was adamant that Liverpool would not let Coutinho leave under any circumstance. Now, though, reports of the club’s thinking have Liverpool sounding way more open and maybe even resigned to Coutinho’s impending departure. The club has so far refused to comment on the record on whether or not Coutinho is for sale this winter, and manager Jürgen Klopp has yet to explicitly denied the mounting speculation that Coutinho may be on his way out—both departures from the club’s vociferous public statements in the summer that categorically ruled out a sale.
The most solid proof that this courtship between Barcelona and Coutinho might finally be consummated sooner rather than later comes from a few recent reports written by journalists with long, proven track records of knowing what those in charge at Liverpool are thinking. Melissa Reddy’s Goal.com report from yesterday said the Catalan club are in the process of “finalizing” a deal expected to cost an initial €105 million plus some €45 million more in feasibly attainable add-ons, and that both the player and Barça want to get this done now rather than next summer. Paul Joyce’s report in the Times echoes that sentiment, saying that “Liverpool increasingly appear ready to part with the 25-year-old” for a bid that approaches the same figures Reddy mentioned. And most convincingly, the Liverpool Echo’s James Pearce—the gold standard when it comes to accurately reporting Liverpool news—had this to say on the subject earlier today:
Liverpool are fighting a losing battle trying to convince Philippe Coutinho to stay at Anfield for the rest of the season.
The Reds had hoped that the club’s continued involvement in the Champions League – coupled with an offer to improve his £150,000 per week wages – would persuade the Brazil international to put his dream move to Barcelona on hold until the summer.
However, Coutinho has made it clear that he isn’t prepared to wait any longer and his heart is set on an imminent transfer to the Camp Nou.
The 25-year-old’s representatives, Kia Joorabchian and Giuliano Bertolucci, believe that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is about to make that a reality by tabling an offer of around £140million.
These are the same reporters whose dismissals of the Spanish press’s reports in the summer that the Coutinho deal was imminent were the strongest, and in retrospect most accurate, evidence that the Brazilian was not going to leave Liverpool at that time. That their reporting now supports the idea that the club has had a change of heart, coupled with the fact that the papers in Spain are so confident of this transfer going through that they’re already picking out which kit number Coutinho will probably wear when he joins, makes this transfer seem like more a matter of when than if.
If all of these reports and the dozens more like them are right and there is interest on the part of Barcelona and Coutinho to push for a deal and a willingness on behalf of Liverpool to allow it to happen, then the next question is whether the move makes logical sense. On that front, the mooted transfer is as hard to understand now as it was last summer.
With his exploits last year and the first half of this season, Coutinho has cemented himself as a legit superstar-level talent. He’s a genius at dribbling and passing, and he’s become a much better scorer of late after realizing that some shots (like those in the penalty box) are better than others (like low-percentage bangers hit from 25 yards out). Because of his age and durability and galactic abilities, he is, in a vacuum, worth every cent of the money being talked about here.
The question, though, is if he’s worth that much money to Barcelona, and if what Barça are reportedly willing to pay is worth it for Liverpool to take. The answers there are much less clear.
Coutinho has been by far at his best when playing as a left-sided forward during the past couple seasons. At Barcelona, he’ll probably be asked to play in more of a central midfield role, as their long-term replacement for Andrés Iniesta. This isn’t a crazy proposition or anything. Klopp’s own original plan for Coutinho this season was to transition him from his forward role into basically the same midfield role he’d assume in Barça’s traditional 4-3-3 formation. Still, it’s something of a head-scratcher to pay a fortune for a player so great in one role and play him in a different one.
Now, this potential positional awkwardness could well be mitigated in the short term by sticking with the 4-4-2 formation the team has used for most of this season (with Coutinho as the nominal wide left midfielder and the recently returned Ousmane Dembélé on the opposite flank), and in the medium-to-long term by Barça getting rid of aging striker Luis Suárez in a year or two and playing a 4-3-3 in which Coutinho, Lionel Messi, and Dembélé are the three forwards. And, again, Coutinho’s blistering greatness and his versatility make any arguable incongruity of roles a totally acceptable risk. If there is a young superstar available who can fill a position of need, and you can afford him, you pretty much have to make it happen.
The timing of the move is also a little strange, though. Barcelona have a massive 14 point lead in La Liga over their only real rival for the title, Real Madrid. This means they are practically a lock to win that trophy. In that competition, they don’t really need Coutinho’s help to come out on the other side victorious. In the Champions League, where Barcelona truly could use an influx of top-end talent to aid their chances of being crowned the kings of Europe, Coutinho won’t be able to help them either. Because he’s already played in that competition for Liverpool this season, he’s ineligible to represent Barcelona there. So from Barcelona’s perspective, even in the best of circumstances Coutinho isn’t likely to be the on-pitch difference maker that will lead them to trophies they otherwise wouldn’t have won without his contributions.
Along those same lines, the main reason why it feels strange that Liverpool are sanctioning Coutinho’s exit now after holding off in the summer is because of what they stand to lose in his absence this year. The Reds are never going to run down Manchester City the Premier League and beat them to the EPL title, but they do have a great chance to fight for a place in the top four in the continent’s most cut-throat race for Champions League qualification. It also wouldn’t be a shocker to see them make a deep UCL run this year with Coutinho in the side. Since the Barcelona talk got to such an advanced stage last summer, it’s been clear for a while that Coutinho was likely to leave town at the end of this season. Selling their star Brazilian at that time, after a full season of greatness and a Champions League spot locked up and ample time to go find a top-quality replacement, would’ve been ideal. Doing so now and risking all that makes less sense, and calls to mind echoes of the small, selling club mentality from the days Liverpool fans have prayed so dearly were at last behind them.
But hey, maybe everyone’s getting ahead of themselves. Maybe Barcelona are blowing smoke up everyone’s asses once again (remember that Barça’s bids in the summer, while nominally record-breaking on paper, were actually insultingly structured; they included a high but not eye-poppingly so initial transfer fee and a huge amount of incentive-based add-ons that Coutinho was exceedingly unlikely to ever hit) and won’t pony up the money when the rubber hits the road.
Barcelona are, after all, less cash flush than most of their fellow mega-clubs, owing to their lack of a deep pocketed owner, their already sky-high salary outlay that already butts up against La Liga’s prescribed wage cap, and board rules that preclude the club from running up significant debts in consecutive years (though those rules might have changed very recently). Javier Mascherano’s hefty salary is by all reports soon to come off the books this winter when he finalizes his move to China, and Arda Turan’s millstone of a contract too might be soon removed if he finally accepts a transfer out of town as is rumored. At the very least, Barça will likely need to get out from under those contracts in order to make room for Coutinho’s; if they don’t, it’s hard to see how they’ll be able to squeeze in such a high-earning new player.
From Liverpool’s perspective, maybe they aren’t as willing to sell as they seem. Maybe they know they messed up by being so unyielding in their negotiations with Barcelona last time around in light of how the wounded and want-away Coutinho went on strike and submitted a transfer request before being coaxed back to happiness after the summer window closed. Maybe the club is trying to appear open to Barça’s advances in public and in private, knowing full well that unless the Catalans stump up a truly staggering transfer fee all up front they won’t accept it, hoping that Coutinho in turn blames Barcelona for not getting the deal over the line rather than Liverpool for being unconditionally against the sale in the first place. And maybe the parties do strike a deal but it doesn’t go into effect until July, and for another six months or so things go on more or less how they have been.
Any of those monkey-wrenches and plenty more could ultimately scupper the Coutinho-to-Barcelona move, for just a single transfer window or maybe even entirely. And knowing how the ever-shifting scenes played out during the summer editions of both NeyWatch and One Life to Liverpool, the odds seem more in favor of this being a long, winding, drawn out process rather than a quick and tidy one. Regardless, for the first time in this now years-long saga, it now feels like Coutinho and Barcelona really will make their union official pretty damn soon. Hopefully not too soon, though. Everyone knows it’s the will-they-or-won’t-they period that is the best part of all these shows.