Philippe Coutinho went from getting his dream move to being dispensable for financial and footballing reasons. Here’s how Barcelona’s record signing turned out to be yet another failed transfer.
The Story so far
The infamous departure of Neymar Jr. was the catalyst to many changes around top European clubs. One such move was Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona during the winter window of the 2017/18 season. After months of speculation, rumours, multiple bids, Liverpool finally gave in after the Brazilian submitted a transfer request to the club. The little magician finally got his dream move, with the Merseyside club exploiting the then cash-rich Barça in the transfer fee.
The first purple patch
The 2017/18 season was a difficult season for Barcelona. Still reeling from the departure of Neymar, incoming manager Ernesto Valverde decided to go for defensive solidity over attacking flexibility. The Basque manager went for a pragmatic 4-4-2 with four midfielders packing the middle. Despite arriving during the winter whilst carrying an injury, Coutinho excelled as the fourth midfielder.
The Brazilian was cup-tied in the Champions League and was only allowed to play in the domestic competitions. And he excelled in La Liga as he finished the season with 13 goal contributions in just 18 appearances. He also scored a hattrick in the second last game of the season, but for a losing cause. Barça lost to Levante 5-4 in a heart-rending end to their unbeaten La Liga campaign.
Coutinho’s performances in the league and the last few Copa del Rey games gave the Culés hope for the Champions League next season as they just witnessed a mortifying collapse at Rome.
Huge Expectations, Low Returns, Heavy criticism
When Coutinho signed for Barcelona, there was always uncertainty over his role. Was the Brazilian replacing his fellow countryman, or was he the replacement for Andrés Iniesta, who left the following season? The Catalans soon found out it was neither in the next campaign as Valverde moved back to 4-3-3 after heavy criticism of the pragmatic approach.
At Liverpool, Coutinho extensively played centrally in a number ten role with everything going through him in the attacking phase. At Barça, Lionel Messi was there to fulfil that role and much more with it. The Brazilian had to slot in either at the wing or as an advanced ‘8’ in a three-man midfield. The gaffer preferred him on the wings as his defensive inputs weren’t enough to play in the middle.
The former Liverpool man was blessed with plenty of skills on the ball and the craftwork to pull it off. For all the Brazilian flair, he lacked that burst of acceleration to beat opponents on the wing. The Catalans needed a winger who could play without the ball at his feet, constantly making runs behind the defensive line. With Suarez making very few of these runs lately and Messi playing as the conductor Coutinho needed to do things that complemented these traits.
The Brazilian struggled to make an impact in games, with fans criticism further damaging his confidence. He finished with the same goal return as the previous campaign despite playing the complete season in both UCL and the league. Adding fuel to the fire, Liverpool humiliated Barça at Anfield and went onto win the Champions League.
The loan at Bayern Munich and a shot at redemption
The poor form, financial strain, and the arrival of Antonie Griezmann meant the Catalans had to move Coutinho somewhere. Bayern Munich wanted a quality backup for their starters and promptly signed him on a loan deal paying his wages apart from the loan fee. More than anything, the Brazilian was happy in Germany. The weight of his price tag was no longer on his shoulders anymore.
Bayern were few of the teams in Europe deploying 4-2-3-1 with a number ’10’ acting in between the lines. The German champions struggled under Niko Kovač, but once Hansi Flick took over, no one could stop them. Thomas Müller got back to his best and was the undisputed starter in Coutinho’s position. The Brazilian, however, acted as an able deputy for the German. He was also deployed on the left-wing, filling in for Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry.
Coutinho successfully recovered his mojo and won every trophy they competed in. And to add a cherry on top of the sundae, he came on as a substitute to score twice and assist in the infamous 8-2 victory against Barça. Despite the fairly impressive performances, Bayern were never going to cash in on the €120m buying clause. With Ronald Koeman very keen on including him in the plans, the Brazilian came back to the Catalans.
The second purple patch
When Ronald Koeman took over at the Camp Nou, it was evident that his preferred formation was 4-2-3-1. And Coutinho was the perfect choice to play in the hole. He continued his inspired form at the start of the season, with every Barça attack going through him.
The 28-year-old received between the lines and was a constant menace for the opposition. With Lionel Messi struck in a transfer drama and looking out of touch, Coutinho stepping up helped the team a little. After a brisk start, injury struck again post the El Clasico.
As the Brazilian slowly got back to full fitness, Ronald Koeman changed systems and went for the traditional 4-3-3 in search of better stability. Pedri slowly but surely merited his starting spot, and Coutinho was only getting minutes off the bench. By the end of the year, he ruptured his Outer Meniscus and is yet to recover. Right now, Koeman has made even more changes to the structure, and with the team performing better than ever, and there’s little room to accommodate him.
Barcelona’s financial troubles
Barcelona under Josep Maria Bartomeu went for the galactico model after Neymar left, among many other questionable decisions. With €222m in their pockets, all the clubs exploited them by raising the prices. Barça signed Coutinho from Liverpool in a deal that could stretch up to €160m if all clauses were satisfied. Now, with the 28-year-old on 90 appearances for the Catalans, making him play ten more games could cost Barça up to €20m.
The current financial position of the club is exceedingly critical. Humongous wage bills, millions owed to clubs for previous transfers, and the general hit in revenue due to COVID-19 have crippled the club. In this situation, playing him and paying €20m to Liverpool and up to €7m per year in wages is far from ideal.
Three years have passed, and the Catalans are yet to gain dividends on their investment in the Brazilian. Constant injuries, subpar performances, tactical inflexibility and many other reasons have restrained him from making an impact in the Blaugrana shirt. Now, with another injury and surgery further hampering his season, the journey might be coming to a premature end. Barça’s financial crisis puts Coutinho right back into the transfer list.
Football has slowly moved away from the usage of a natural ’10’. Very few of the top teams in Europe use the role. Managers have struggled to incorporate players like James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil, Paulo Dybala in recent times. Coutinho faces a similar dilemma which leaves him with very few teams to choose from.
With his high wages, only a few clubs could afford the Brazilian, probably from the Premier League. Liverpool could bring back their star boy to take some of the creative burdens. With Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner possibly leaving, an extra midfielder would be an upgrade alongside Curtis Jones. Another possible destination could be Arsenal if they fail to sign Martin Ødegaard permanently.
What started as a dream move has to, unfortunately, end as an offloading. While Coutinho’s injuries, adaptability may have played a part, ultimately, his humongous price tag and his failure to live up to it would be the final nail in the coffin. There’s very little chance right now for Culés to see the little magician in the Garnet and Blue of again.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.