Philippe Coutinho is the third most expensive footballer in history. Joe Townsend charts his journey before and since making that £142m move from Liverpool to Barcelona in January 2018.
When the deal for Philippe Coutinho to join Barcelona was finally announced following a protracted saga stretching back almost a year, there was a feeling that Liverpool had done great business on a player signed from Inter Milan five years earlier for just £8.5m.
They had squeezed every penny out of Barca, ultimately receiving a fee way in excess of what had been offered in the previous transfer window.
At the time, only Neymar's game-changing switch from Camp Nou to Paris St-Germain for an eye-watering £200m, eclipsed it.
But the Reds were losing a fans’ favourite, their best player, and someone who having only just turned 25 was in theory approaching his prime.
It simply hasn't turned out that way.
While Liverpool used that small fortune to buy defender Virgil van Dijk (£75m) and goalkeeper Allison (£67m), helping them embark on a hugely successful two-year period, Coutinho's career has at best stalled, and at worst gone downhill.
To understand just how much things have changed for Philippe Coutinho, we must first remind ourselves of just how good he was during his five-year spell on Merseyside.
After half a season of settling in, the Brazilian quickly became a vital part of the Brendan Rodgers team that narrowly missed out to Manchester City in a gripping 2013/14 title race.
Although not short of admirers, he certainly wasn't considered a key cog in the Reds' sudden rebirth as a serious Premier League contender.
But there was good reason for that.
Liverpool’s three-pronged attack of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge was ripping defences to shreds, and Coutinho was by no means a guaranteed starter. Fast forward 12 months and he was the main man.
Following that oh-so-close campaign Suarez left for Barcelona; 12 months later Sterling was on his way out too.
For Sturridge, the summer of 2014 proved to be the zenith of a career plagued by injuries ever since.
During two years of transition, in which time Rodgers was replaced as manager by Jurgen Klopp, Coutinho exerted more and more influence.
Philippe Coutinho: Liverpool stats
- 2014/15: 35 league games; 5 goals; 5 assists
- 2015/16: 26 league games; 8 goals; 5 assists
- 2016/17: 31 league games; 13 goals; 7 assists
- 2017/18: 14 league games; 7 goals; 6 assists
Even during Rodgers' final months in charge, with Liverpool struggling, Coutinho had begun to turn heads.
His growing reputation was thanks to spectacular goals, dribbling and interplay. The arrival of Klopp saw him back up eye-catching performances with end product.
In the German's first full season, Coutinho increased his goal involvements to one in every two games – not bad for a hitherto pretty, easy on the eye number 10.
On to 2016/17 and he was really taking off: it was now two in every three matches. Then in the half-season before his departure Coutinho was near enough providing a goal or assist in every single game – a combined 13 in 14 league matches.
He was bordering on world class before this surge in attacking output, but this now made him extraordinary.
And as a result, apparently worth £142m.
Philippe Coutinho did join Barcelona, eventually, something he described as "a dream move." Jurgen Klopp said at the time that "any team in the world would miss a player like Coutinho."
Liverpool, as mentioned already, simply haven't though. Two Champions League finals, one of them triumphant, and en route to a record-breaking Premier League title.
As for their former talisman, after a little over 18 months in Catalonia, he joined Bayern Munich on loan: "In Barcelona a lot of things did not turn out as we had imagined."
More on that in a moment. First, how did Coutinho get on in those one-and-a-half seasons at the Nou Camp?
He scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 52 LaLiga games, which on the face of it sounds OK. Go back to our chart of his output at Liverpool, and it’s miles off how he was performing at Anfield.
"In Barcelona a lot of things did not turn out as we had imagined."
Barcelona have every right to demand a lot from a player for whom they paid almost £150m, of that there can be no debate. But Coutinho certainly wasn’t happy about something, and I’ll take a punt at what that was – the manager, the style of play, and his role within the team.
More Sporting Life analysis
Now let's revisit those numbers.
Coutinho joined Barcelona in January 2018 and during the remainder of that league campaign he had a significant impact: 18 games, eight goals, five assists. He hit the ground running. Playing as either an attacking midfielder or as he had on occasion at Liverpool, on the left of a front three.
His arrival had been considered as a possible replacement on two levels – for Neymar, to play alongside Lionel Messi and Suarez in that third attacking position, and, more likely, as a long-term midfield successor to Andres Iniesta.
That summer, Iniesta left the club and soon after head coach Ernesto Valverde introduced a new style of play. Barca would no longer play their Johan Cruyff-inspired 4-3-3 which had been the blueprint of the club for so long – it would be a narrow 4-4-2, with Messi and Suarez as the forwards.
Ultimately, that change of philosophy would cost Valverde his job, despite Barcelona winning LaLiga in both his seasons at the Nou Camp, and being top of the table when he was sacked.
So what was the effect on Coutinho? In pure numbers terms, stark.
That season, in 34 league matches he scored just five goals, and provided only two assists.
This creative genius, an absolute magician that had lit up the Premier League before getting his "dream move," who then carried that form into his opening months in Spanish football had been well and truly stunted.
As already discussed, Coutinho's increased productivity at Liverpool came following the arrival of Klopp as his manager and that was no coincidence.
The German arguably built the team around him, better defining his role and moving the Brazilian further up the pitch, into a far more attacking position.
He almost became more of an attacker than a midfielder, as Anfield got used to "Rock ‘n’ Roll Football" led by the Fab Four of Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
Did Barcelona really know what they were buying then? If they wanted a successor to Iniesta, he wasn’t their man.
"We can take advantage of his versatility. He scores and sets up goals and going forward he can help us a lot as he can play both inside and out wide,” was what Valverde said after the deal was done.
In fairness, that was the kind of versatility Iniesta had in his younger days. But he was not brought in as the club’s record signing, the second most expensive player in history and then asked to change his game.
How can anyone be surprised that it didn’t work? They started asking Coutinho to go back to doing the things he did before he was exceptional – pre-Klopp Coutinho.
Shock horror, he was no longer exceptional.
"In Barcelona a lot of things did not turn out as we had imagined."
After failing to use him as a makeweight in a deal to bring Neymar back from PSG, Barcelona farmed Coutinho out on loan to Bayern.
Now imagine you have wanted something your entire life, it's your dream, your goal and you reach it. Then, it just doesn’t go the way you had always hoped. 'Never meet your heroes' springs to mind.
Philippe Coutinho’s spell at Barcelona was by no means without its positives. The team won LaLiga in both seasons, the Copa del Rey once and the Spanish Super Cup twice.
But he was not a success personally. The fans didn't take to him and the club wanted to sell him. No one can tell me that doesn't leave its mark.
In Germany he is rebuilding himself. Eight goals and six assists in 22 Bundesliga matches is a good return for any attacking midfielder.
The issue facing him now is where his career goes come the end of his loan spell in Bavaria.
Anyone who saw Bayern totally rip Tottenham and Chelsea apart in this season’s Champions League will know that while Coutinho is a fantastic player, he does not stand out in their XI.
If he doesn’t stand out, then why would Bayern sign him permanently? They have the option to do so, for £110m. I just cannot see it.
Throw into the mix that they have previous with James Rodriguez, who following a two-season loan returned to Real Madrid last summer.
And while Bayern aren’t shy of splashing out on big wages, their €80m signing of Lucas Hernandez from Atletico Madrid last year was double what they have paid for any other player. Historically, giant transfer fees isn't what they do.
They are shrewd operators, and this just does not seem like their sort of deal, even if Barca were to cut the asking price down.
Where does that leave Coutinho then? Is an emotional return to Liverpool on the cards? They are probably one of very few clubs that could afford his reported £250,000 per week wages, but we’re getting into the land of speculation.
If we go back a step to the reason why things seemed to go wrong for him in Spain then it changes everything: Valverde.
His sacking, the first midseason departure of a Barcelona head coach for 17 years, offers Coutinho potential redemption at the Nou Camp.
It could be a clean slate for the Brazilian, whatever personal issues he may have had with his former boss. Moreover, the new man in charge Quique Setien has brought back the club’s traditional 4-3-3 and openly describes himself as a "devout disciple of Johan Cruyff."
That is surely music to the ears of an exiled playmaker.
Whether we’ll ever see Coutinho recapture the form that lit up the Premier League during his time playing for Liverpool, who knows, but I suspect he’ll get another go at the "dream move" that at the first time of asking turned into something of a nightmare.
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