Not every story in football ends in glory and not every dream ends up coming true. This is a tough and yet extremely efficient lesson that many players get to experience, one way or another. This is also a story that might star Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona’s biggest signing in the club’s rich history.
After years upon years of speculation, transfer rumours, and flirting between the two, the Catalans finally incorporated the Brazilian superstar last January for a record-breaking fee of what could amount to 150 million euros. Although his new dream career started with a spark, it was one that was put out fairly easy, and relatively quick.
Fast forward barely a year and instead of an heir to Lionel Messi’s throne, Coutinho is not much more than a super-sub, warming the bench and ripping a hole in the board’s pockets, one day at a time. But a super-sub is someone who comes from the bench and makes a big difference – a game changer, in more looser terms. Phil is not really a game-changer. At this point, he is just a really, really expensive substitute who, for all his flair, talent, and undoubtable skill, offers very little.
And we don’t have to look that much back in order to find more examples of players that came to the Camp Nou to prosper and live the dream but instead failed to impress. They all followed that very same pattern: Bought for a hefty sum, excited almost everyone, fared quite well at the beginning but then came the steady and painful decline, then the bench, and then – the door.
Without rushing to such conclusions barely a season-long into Coutinho’s Barcelona career, we can say that at the moment, it’s not really sunshine and rainbows for the Brazilian at the Catalan capital. But how does such a talented and probably even world-class player end up in such a slump at the club of his dreams? What did go wrong for him?
A panic buy
Last year Barcelona were on a lookout for a midfielder who would finally re-establish their middle of the park dominance and bring them back to the highest of levels. The name that fit the description almost perfectly was not really Philippe Coutinho but rather Marco Verratti.
The Italian maestro is by now a pretty well-known name and an all-important piece in Paris Saint-Germain’s puzzle. For that reason, and probably some more that don’t really have much to do with football, Verratti was deemed a prisoner of the French club, and his transfer to Catalunya was blocked altogether.
A whole summer long drama that resulted in total failure hit Barcelona pretty hard, leaving them with basically no options and even more crucially, no time left to fill the void that was created.
Xavi was already long gone, Iniesta was soon to follow and there was no one in line to replace them. Safe to say that panic ensued, and quite irrational decisions were made to compensate for a bitter transfer market defeat. One that was not really expected. Usually, Barcelona get what Barcelona want. But not that time.
The Catalans then quickly turned to Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, the former being a “transfer bound to happen once”, and the latter an emerging talent who was even picked over Kylian Mbappe, the next big thing in the world of football.
Borussia Dortmund played the cards well, and with an extra push from the young Frenchman, Dembele was Barcelona’s big buy that summer. They overpaid quite a lot but they got their man. Liverpool, on the other hand, stood firm and relentless. Philippe Coutinho was going nowhere. Barcelona were beaten once again but promised they would return to make a young boy’s dream come true in January. And they did.
But Philippe Coutinho was not bought because of footballing necessity. He was bought because the board needed a star name to calm the fans who were getting annoyed, scared and worried about the club’s direction. Josep Maria Bartomeu’s chair was rocking pretty hard, and a signing like Coutinho was the only thing to calm the storm.
Not much thought was put into that decision, as it now seems, at least. Sure, the press and the club both stated that the Brazilian would be a long-term successor of Andres Iniesta in midfield but no one really stopped to consider whether he fits that profile or not.
On paper, you could say that he does: A creative player that’s also really good on the ball, and has a high football IQ to go along with it, as well as the ability to make great passes into the final third. Combine that with the prime age he is in and you should, in theory at least, get your money’s worth almost definitely.
But even though that does fit the description perfectly, Coutinho showed no prior experience in that role, nor the physicality (or the mentality) to play there. Klopp probably described it best when he commented on the subject itself:
“Coutinho is a fabulous forward but he will never feel comfortable in 4-3-3 as an inside midfielder; and much less if he has to play in the spot of Iniesta in the defensive phase of the 4-4-2 that Valverde practices, where the long runs must be done by the wings. Iniesta is a long distance runner. Coutinho is not.”
This might be a bit harsh from the German but it sure was on point. Coutinho was not really fast or physical enough to play as a winger, at least that doesn’t complement his skill set to the fullest, as we have seen in Barcelona, and as it turned out, he doesn’t have the lungs to play in midfield either.
If given the choice, Valverde would always opt for Rakitić, Vidal or Alena, and Coutinho would be used only in experiments in La Liga and as a last resort if the team were to be ridden with injuries. So where does that leave the Brazilian?
Klopp was really against letting him go because he was instrumental to his gameplan but in the end, he knew that Barcelona would most certainly overpay for someone who doesn’t even have a clear spot in the team. Although he is clearly explosive and extremely efficient in smaller spaces, when it comes to transitions from attack to defense and vice versa, Coutinho had the heart and lungs for only a couple efforts before running his tank completely dry.
If he neither fits the profile of a Barcelona midfielder nor a Barcelona winger, he doesn’t really have that many options open. And by “that many”, I mean none whatsoever. Being an interior midfielder is not his role – he thrives on a position right behind the striker, playing as an attacking midfielder or as a number 10. But you know who plays there in Barcelona? I think we all know it and that is a clear “no” to Coutinho for that particular spot in the team.
So a position that suits him the best and is his natural one is taken, he cannot really operate as an interior in a midfield trident and his physical restrictions kind off limit him as an out-and-out winger. A pretty dire situation to say the least.
A victim of his own success
As if all of that mentioned above was not enough, Coutinho has a different problem: He is a man out of time, and in many ways, a victim of his own success. But let’s go one issue at a time.
Most of those problems can be traced back to his price tag. 150 million euros make him Barcelona’s biggest purchase in their history, and it adds a tremendous weight on his shoulders. It also means that he has to perform almost immediately. Sure, he was given a short adaptation window but that is now long shut, and he has to shine now or else.
It also means that he will not be tolerated as a substitute for much longer, and given that we all know that this is not an issue of him being a bad player, not at all, but an issue of not fitting the profile, other clubs won’t hesitate to try and buy the player, and Barcelona might not hesitate to listen to those offers.
Since Coutinho is clearly a great player and he has proved as much in a Liverpool shirt, his price tag, although much inflated, is not that far from being almost justified. In a way, by being such a great talent and an exceptional individual both on and off the pitch, Coutinho has unintentionally doomed himself.
For all those reasons, he just might be a victim of his own (past) success.
For now, Barcelona are adamant on letting Philippe Coutinho stay at the club, at least for the time being. But we all know that they are very well aware of how serious this problem actually is. Luckily for the Brazilian, they also know that he is a fantastic player and has it in himself to turn this situation around.
Quite frankly, that might be the only thing that is keeping Coutinho in the Blaugrana shirt. There is still hope that this dream ends up being a nice one instead of a nightmare but the clock is very much ticking and unfortunately, he might be one great offer away from being just another reject in Barcelona’s midsts.
Here’s to that never happening.