Lost Little Magician: How Jürgen Klopp swindled Barcelona, part 2

Jurgen Klopp is pictured. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Great promise, disappointment, optimism and the gradual overinflation of value sum up the Philippe Coutinho saga from before his final season at Liverpool FC, as I described in Part 1 of this story. But how does this overinflation match the state of inertia Coutinho currently finds himself in today?


June 2017: Top 4 Finish (Transfer Value: Roughly £72 million)

Following a fantastic performance in a 6–1 home thumping of Watford FC on Nov. 6, 2016 and a wonderful outside-the-box signature curler against rival Argentina for Brazil four days later, Coutinho was untouchable. A six-week ankle ailment at the end of the month may have halted momentum, but more importantly, it froze the image of Coutinho as Liverpool’s main architect. A 4–3 embarrassing away collapse to AFC Bournemouth in his absence heightened such claims. The January transfer window came and went with Coutinho not only returning to fitness at the end of the month but signing a new five-year contract with Liverpool. Coach Jürgen Klopp reiterated, “We never had any ideas or plans or any talks about him leaving.” 

A disappointing eight-game stretch from his return against Manchester United in a 1–1 result on Jan. 15 to a twin-result against Manchester City on March 19 saw Coutinho score one goal; now, the shift for Liverpool squarely changed from a league title push to a top-four one. However, he had nine goal involvements in the final 10 games, including a sensational solo weave against Everton FC and a divine free kick in the top-four deciding finale against Middlesbrough FC. 13 goals and seven assists — a slight overperformance against a combined xG+xG around 15, but an NPxG90+xA90 tally of 0.60 is the highest of his career and was enhanced by Liverpool’s mirage appearance of a title challenge and worldie-worthy goal after worldie-of-a-goal, usually his trademark right-footed far-post curler from the left wing. 


September 2017: Barca offers flying in (Transfer Value: Roughly £90 million)

But more importantly in Coutinho’s pursuit of Barcelona was Neymar’s record €222 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain FC on Aug. 4, just two weeks after Liverpool rejected a £72 million offer from the Catalonian club. The wheels were in motion for a transfer, but Liverpool would appear to have had all of the leverage. 

Until Coutinho handed in his transfer request a week later … and a subsequent £90 million Barcelona bid was rejected. The ownership company Fenway Sports Group came out with a swift statement following the bid, “The club’s definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool Football Club when the summer (transfer) window closes.”

Barcelona saw a further £114 million offer rejected a week later, and stopped just short of offering £138 million five days later. Instead, they pivoted to the €105 million transfer for French starlet Ousmane Dembele to fill the Neymar-sized hole on the wing. 


New Year’s Day, 2018: Mixed emotions (Transfer Fee: Roughly £108 million)

After appearing on Liverpool’s preseason tour in late July and reporting to Brazilian international duty in late August, the little magician was conspicuously absent from the Liverpool matchday squad. Back problems mysteriously disappeared after the transfer window closed

He returned with stunners in consecutive matches against Leicester City FC and Newcastle United FC, both signature low-xG curlers from outside-the-box from the left. But the story of the Liverpool season parallels the last one, and a boom-or-bust side found each game following one of three results. In the first, Liverpool smash the opposition (e.g., a 5–1 away win at Brighton & Hove Albion FC in which Coutinho had three goal contributions). In the second outcome, a late defensive collapse negates a clinical attacking showing (e.g., an embarrassing 3–3 draw to Sevilla in the Champions League, which was the swan song of Alberto Moreno, a good friend of Coutinho’s). Or finally, third, a failure to beat a low block (e.g., an embarrassing 0–0 home draw to bottom-feeders West Bromwich Albion FC).


Coutinho was given the captain’s armband three times during this stretch, including a record 7–0 win against Spartak Moscow where the Brazilian scored a hat-trick and Liverpool clinched top spot in their Champions League group. 

Optimism around a 5–0 smashing against Swansea City AFC on Dec. 26 was quickly quashed by a leaked Nike advertisement featuring Coutinho’s name on the back of a Barcelona jersey four days later. Another mysterious injury, this time on the player’s hamstring, sidelined Coutinho from the match on Jan. 1. 


Jan. 6, 2018: Transfer (Transfer Value: Roughly £105–£142 million)

On Jan. 6, the transfer fee was announced at initially £105 million with add-ons potentially elevating the total to £142 million. 

In just six months, Liverpool’s firm position, coupled with the telegraphed intentions of both Barcelona and Coutinho, ended up nearly doubling Coutinho’s price. 

The tale has gone in opposite directions for both clubs since then.

Liverpool notably invested the Coutinho funds into Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, making two consecutive Champions League finals, winning one final while overcoming Coutinho’s Barcelona in the 2019 semifinal with a 4–0 Anfield comeback win and conquering the 2019–20 Premier League.

Coutinho became a fringe player at Barcelona, was loaned to Bayern Munich for the 2019–20 season and scored two goals against his parent club in an 8–2 Champions League quarterfinal smashing. He returned to the club this summer to find himself in and out of the starting lineup. 

The lesson: Jürgen Klopp probably knew Coutinho was inevitably leaving since the fall of 2016, but stuck to a plan that left him looking like a genius.