Lost Little Magician: How Barcelona stunted Philippe Coutinho, part 1

Philippe Coutinho is pictured in 2018 during the FIFA World Cup. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

The post-Neymar vacuum at FC Barcelona has swallowed up more souls than even Lionel Messi could save.

Arrivals Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann, Malcom and the mercurial Philippe Coutinho have fallen well short of expectations and fees. Not only was Barcelona clearly in need of an attacking threat to replace the outgoing Neymar following his shocking and record-breaking transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in summer 2017, but every selling club on the market was also ready to sell high on prized assets.

No club danced to Barcelona’s desperate waltz better than Liverpool FC, which magnificently gallivanted Coutinho’s fee up from the sub-€40 million value it had in summer 2016 to a reported €160 million just a year and a half later. How did Michael Edwards, the Liverpool FC sporting director, and company pull off such a stunt? Let’s track the rise and fall of Coutinho’s transfer value since his days as a tricky youngster in Brazil.


June 2010: Arrival at Inter Milan (Value: €4 million in 2008)

Flourishing in the Vasco da Gama youth system in his native city of Rio, Inter Milan, led by José Mourinho, signed the 16-year-old Coutinho for €4 million in 2008. After two years on loan in Brazil, the teenager joined the team in the summer of 2010 on the back of Inter’s treble-winning season. Despite Massimo Moratti, the former chairman of Inter Milan, saying “Coutinho is the future of Inter,” the Brazilian played just 28 times in the next 18 months, scoring twice and struggling with the language barrier.


January 2012: Frustration, loan to Espanyol (Value: Roughly €9 million)

RCD Espanyol is the little brother in a city featuring the team Coutinho always dreamed of playing for when he was a kid in Brazil idolizing Ronaldinho: Barcelona. The club’s young manager, Mauricio Pochettino, played a high-pressing 4–2–3–1, a formation and game style more suited to Coutinho than the rigid style of Rafael Benitez, manager of Inter Milan. Six goal involvements in just 16 games, including a memorable brace in a 5–1 demolition of Rayo Vallecano, saw Coutinho boost his stock.

A return to Inter Milan, however, offered little opportunity for game time. Bids began flying in for the mercurial magician, including from Southampton FC, now managed by Pochettino. However, at the behest of former manager Benitez, Liverpool came in with an £8.5 million offer in the January window; Coutinho, blinded by the glam of Anfield, selected the Scouse side.


May, 2015: Coutinho voted Liverpool Player of the Season (Value: Roughly €30 million)

Coutinho was a key cog in Liverpool’s title-challenging 2013–14 team under manager Brandon Rogers, playing either as a center midfielder in a 4–4–2 diamond or on the wing in a 4–3–3. His signature bent-over, right-footed curler in the far corner that’s such a staple of his game today made a grand appearance in a crucial 3–2 April victory over eventual-champions Manchester City FC, as he bent a ball in from the top of the box past keeper Joe Hart following a Vincent Kompany “slice.”

With talisman Luis Suárez sold before the 2014–15 season, Coutinho was given a mandate further forward. The Brazilian’s play still featured maddening inconsistency and moments of flash instead of sustained brilliance. His goals and assists tally inched only from 13 to 14 in all competitions, despite playing close to 1,500 more minutes. Thanks to some late-minute heroics on the road to a FA Cup semifinal, Coutinho was voted Liverpool Player of the Year and shortlisted for PFA Young Player of the Year.


November 2016: Best in the Premier League? (Value: Roughly €40 million)

The 2015–16 season offered a hike in statistical efficiency for Coutinho, as new manager Jurgen Klopp built a high-pressing team around the Brazilian, who could focus on creativity in a role as a 10. His nonpenalty Xg90 + xA90 hiked from 0.32 to 0.53, and Paris Saint-Germain reportedly had multiple bids rejected in the summer, including one as high as €40 million.

He finally began receiving international attention, buoyed by his selection for the Copa America in the summer of 2016, by scoring a hat trick against Haiti. Subsequent goals in appearances in World Cup qualifiers that fall, coupled with his highly publicized friendship with Brazilian superstar Neymar, sparked the question: Was Coutinho, now in the conversation for the best player in the Premier League, worthy to join his friend at dream-club Barcelona?

This claim was bolstered by Coutinho’s 10 goal involvements through Liverpool’s first 11 games of the league season that helped perch the club atop the table. Playing on the wing with even fewer defensive duties than before, British tabloids were now quick to cast him as the league’s best.