Philippe Coutinho’s signing by Aston Villa demonstrates ambition, but for what purpose?
It’s difficult to feel sad for someone who gets paid tens of millions of dollars to live in Barcelona (with a brief visit to Munich) and doesn’t have to do much work. Given the manner in which Philippe Coutinho left Anfield for the Nou Camp in 2018, Liverpool fans will have little sympathy for him.
But it isn’t really Coutinho’s fault that he has become a symbol of Barcelona’s ineptitude, extravagance, and foolishness. Not totally, at least. It wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that Barcelona was so eager to spend the money they had received from PSG in exchange for Neymar. It wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that Ousmane Dembélé, the other Neymar splurge, had already proven to be permanently crocked by the time Coutinho arrived.
And it wasn’t Coutinho’s fault that he accepted a promotion to play for a team that already had a ball-dominant player who rendered his abilities obsolete. In fact, Lionel Messi was THE ball-dominant player on the team. Imagine signing Russell Westbrook as an off-the-ball screener and shooter in his peak. It was about as uncomfortable as it could get.
Coutinho was once one of the most dynamic midfielders in the Premier League, and it’s hard to believe it was just four years ago. Liverpool, on the other hand, we’re prepared for him, since he spent his greatest season in a forward line, with Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino willing to play off of him. And a half-season behind those two and Mo Salah, who were all making runs for him to thread passes to or create space for his occasionally rash shot selection. Liverpool also had an energetic midfield around or supporting Coutinho, allowing him to improvise and float as they covered for him.
Coutinho’s reputation was not helped by the fact that after he left Liverpool, they immediately spent the money to recruit Virgil van Dijk, who went on to become possibly the best defender in the world, and then mosey to two Champions League finals and a Premier League triumph. It didn’t help matters that Jurgen Klopp and the Liverpool hierarchy never felt compelled to replace Coutinho, instead of delegating creative responsibilities to their fullbacks and leaving the midfield to be more energetic than inspirational.
Perhaps Barcelona felt that simply reuniting Coutinho and Luis Suárez in the same lineup would bring back the magic they enjoyed at Liverpool in England. However, they did not have the same free positions on the field. Coutinho used to play in a midfield diamond with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool. Barca did not use that configuration. Ivan Rakiti was already in midfield where Coutinho would be, and one spends a lot of time on the left side of the front three watching Messi do his thing. Coutinho isn’t a fan of running into open space.
Coutinho has never been a high-energy worker in the years since, which means the other two midfielders must cover some ground. Sergio Busquets’ odometer already had several hundred thousand miles on it, so Barca couldn’t give that either.
Coutinho has been a melancholy figure for the previous four seasons as a result of it all. He was in the stands as they lost to Roma and Liverpool in the Champions League. He was loaned out to Munich, which allowed him to be on the right side of yet another Barca thrashing, and he scored twice for Munich in that 8-2 victory, but he couldn’t stay in Munich. He’s been a bit-part player for the rest of his career, as memories of him winning games on his own fade.
Still, Coutinho is only 29 years old, and he has to be in there somewhere. And there may be no better place for him to express himself than playing for his old captain, Steven Gerrard, and for a squad that used to be constructed around a ball-dominant flair player on the left side of the attack. At Aston Villa, Coutinho will find exactly that.
Villa has spent the last two seasons relying on Jack Grealish, whose skill set is very similar to Coutinho’s. And Gerrard might use him in a multitude of ways. Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins are on the left. Alternatively, they might play behind them in the same midfield diamond as Gerrard and Coutinho. They have the hardworking players to cover in John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, and Jacob Ramsey.
Coutinho is undoubtedly the greatest star to join Villa in a long time, but what Villa aim to achieve remains a mystery. They’re nine points behind the leaders in Europe. They are 11 points above the relegation zone. They’ve only brought Coutinho in on a season-long loan, and it’s difficult to imagine that, even if things go as well as they can, they’ll pay a transfer fee and pay Coutinho’s wages (rumoured to be around $22 million per year) to keep him permanently unless Coutinho is willing to take a massive pay cut.
Perhaps it’s merely a joint declaration of intent. Villa must demonstrate to other players and agents that they are serious about achieving their goals under Gerrard in the coming years. Coutinho to show that when the circumstances are right, he can still be that player. Even if they won’t be able to see each other, they might be able to do one other a favour and help each other’s future.
It’s a boom-or-bust situation, but Villa doesn’t stand to lose anything. Coutinho, on the other hand, does, and Gerrard and Villa are presumably counting on him to play like it.