“Coutinhooooo! It is eight! He has really subbed salt into the wound!”
These words echo in the souls of Culés as Bayern Munich hit eight past Marc-Andre ter Stegen and the flailing Barcelona defence.
What was worse that, coming on in the 75th minute, Philippe Coutinho etched his name into this historic scoreline with two goals and an assist, directly involved in the 6th, then the 7th, and finally the 8th, deeply penetrating the dagger into Barcelona’s hearts.
Despite this, and an inevitable treble, which included a hat trick along the way, Bayern were not interested in keeping Coutinho permanently given his massive price tag. However, Ronald Koeman’s appointment and Coutinho’s increased fitness levels raised some hopes among fans. Who can blame them? Koeman specifically asked him to stay, indicating that better days may lie ahead.
To his credit, Coutinho started the season well, scoring a goal and setting up two in the opening three gameweeks. That said, an injury against Real Madrid meant a downhill spiral for him, as he failed to make an impact in any game after that, scoring one goal in four games.
He was played out of position, but there is only so much a player does wrong even out of his comfort zone. Antoine Griezmann was criticised for forgetting his basics while playing on the right-wing, and Coutinho walked onto the same stray path. It might finally be the last time, though.
Presidential candidates, along with fans have lost confidence in the Brazilian, who was loaned out to Bayern in the first place on the back of poor performances, and it seems that he may be on his way out of Barcelona soon enough.
Barça Universal takes the mantle to suggest three potential clubs where Coutinho could revive his career, owing to their need of a player like him.
The Obvious Route: Paris Saint-Germain
It is almost too easy to link any player to Paris Saint-Germain. They are a mega-club in terms of financial ground, and can easily afford the wages Coutinho is on right now. Stemming from that, they can also pay a transfer fee Barcelona demand. Or at least something in that range.
In terms of tactical adaptability, he will be able to fit right in the club and can play a variety of positions in most of Thomas Tuchel’s systems.
The German coach has used a 4-3-3 most often this season, deploying a workhorse midfield triumvirate in the form of Ander Herrera, Idrissa Gueye, and Leandro Paredes. They have been over-dependent on the forward line to inject imagination, and even the inclusion of Rafinha has helped in bit-part.
Neymar is the team’s primary creative force, averaging three key passes per game, racking up three assists so far in the league. Angel di Maria, at 32, continues to be unplayable as well, with four assists, and 2.9 key passes per game. However, it is hardly sustainable for either of PSG or Di Maria – who turns 33 before the season ends.
Coutinho can be placed on the left of the 4-3-3, which will take a lot of pressure of Neymar, who does most of the ball carrying in the team. Coutinho’s ability to carry the ball means that Neymar can rove near the box, conserving energy, and in the process, becoming more lethal.
Moreover, the fact that the duo have played together for Brazil for several years means that they will likely understand each other and improve team chemistry. Barcelona face PSG in the Round of 16 of the Champions League soon, which will be a good trial for the capital outfit.
Transfer Approval Rating: 7.5/10
The ‘can go either way’ route: Manchester City
Another wealthy club in this list for a player on incredible wages — shocker.
However, apart from being able to afford Coutinho’s salary and his transfer fee, Manchester City could turn out to be the ideal transfer for him.
It is no news that Pep Guardiola’s sky blues have been struggling since the departure of David Silva that has left a huge burden to create nearly alone on Kevin de Bruyne. Stemming from that, Guardiola has had to made major alterations to his team strategy, shifting to a 4-2-3-1. It has barely helped, though, as this current City team seem to be chasing shadows of their past selves.
Coutinho can be deployed as an interior in the three-man midfield, on the left side, from where he can play the lobbed through balls he has mastered. Moreover, he will also have the opportunities to cut in on his favoured right and let loose rockets.
The Brazilian has struggled to find consistent ground throughout his career, being criticised for blowing hot and cold, but playing under Guardiola may be the breakthrough he has been looking for.
Although, it is worth mentioning that Coutinho, who is a Liverpool fan at heart, maybe hesitant to join Manchester City – the club often considered to be the Reds’ modern-day rivals.
Transfer Approval Rating: 6.5/10
The left-of-centre option: Inter Milan
Inter Milan’s rivals Juventus are the only team that have been linked to Coutinho in the recent past, albeit weakly. It was enough for his agent to address it publicly, though.
However, it is Inter that seem to be a better fit for the 28-year-old, for various reasons. Starting from the fact that the capital outfit do not have any salary cap in place and can easily afford Coutinho’s €15 million/year wages.
Moreover, Antonio Conte has tried his level best to deploy a 3-4-1-2 system at Inter to the undoing of the less-then-convincing displays of Alexis Sanchez and Christian Eriksen in that role. Nicolo Barella currently tops the team for assists, and sits second for big chances created and key passes. He has been taking most of the creative toll for the team even though he operates slightly deeper.
Coutinho is a tailor-made fit for that attacking midfield slot that Conte is searching for. He has the technical attributes to boss Serie A, which is considered to be slower compared to the rest of the top five leagues. A return to the club where he started his senior career, eight years after leaving will also give him the incentive to end on a high note.
This may also help Barcelona gain leverage in the pursuit for Lautaro Martinez, who can be signed on a comparatively lower price, or as part of a swap deal.
Transfer Approval Rating: 7/10
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.