Aston Villa have handed Philippe Coutinho an opportunity to get his career back on track, and at 29 years old, it’s a chance he needs to take.
It says a lot for how we view the game these days that the signature of a 63-cap Brazilian international who’s won trophies in four different countries by a former European champion can cause such bafflement and amusement as the loan signing of Phillipe Coutinho by Aston Villa seems to have done. Coutinho’s story is one of the strangest of recent times: a sudden drift from grace at the point that he likely expected to reach the zenith of his career, before returning to the Premier League to re-join a manager alongside whom he played.
On January 6, 2018, things all looked very different. Coutinho had scored 12 goals and contributed nine assists in 20 appearances in the first half of the season, but Liverpool’s title challenge was already effectively over. Manchester City were already 18 points clear and the Reds had clumsily dropped December draws against Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal. That last game was extraordinary, Liverpool throwing away a two-goal lead in the space of five minutes by conceding three times before scrambling back.
Barcelona had dropped just six points all season in La Liga by that same date. They’d finished the 2016/17 season as runners-up to Real Madrid and had been knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals by Juventus, and the previous summer they’d lost Neymar to PSG, when they triggered the £198m release clause in his contract. Barca needed a replacement and Coutinho fit the bill, but a £72m bid was rejected, as were two further offers before the transfer window closed. And Coutinho had been agitating for the move. It cost him considerable goodwill on Merseyside.
The eventual fee that he moved for, if all add-on clauses were met, would be a jaw-dropping £142m.
Liverpool finished the season where they were when Coutinho left: fourth in the Premier League, albeit now 25 behind Manchester City’s centurions. They also reached the final of the Champions League before losing to Real Madrid.
That summer, Liverpool spent £55.5m on Alisson, £52.75m on Naby Keita and £39m on Fabinho – the final pieces in the jigsaw for the team that won the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League a year later.
Barcelona, meanwhile, had spent two-thirds of the biggest transfer fee ever received on one player; it wasn’t working out. They won La Liga at a canter, only losing the penultimate match of the season, by which time the title had long been sewn up. Coutinho weighed in with eight goals, but in the Champions League they lost in the quarter-finals again, this time to Roma on away goals. The following season his performances for the club were fitful, and he found himself as much on the bench as in the first team.
Eighteen months after arriving at Camp Nou, in the summer of 2019, Coutinho was on the move again. This time, Bayern Munich were paying £7.5m, as well as his salary of £12m, to loan him. A fee of £107m was agreed should Bayern wish to make the move permanent. He won the German treble of the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League, but again this only tells part of a story. Coutinho didn’t quite seem to fit – he only made 23 appearances in the league. Bayern didn’t take up their option to sign him in the summer of 2020, but his return to Barcelona was hampered by injury, with a knee problem keeping him out of the second half of the 2020/21 season.
But in the background, Barcelona were imploding. Although he wasn’t source of the club ending up £1.3bn in debt, Coutinho has found himself tarred as one of the symbols of their precipitous fall. He was never going to get any sympathy on Merseyside; he’d burned a lot of bridges there. But it should be made clear that Barcelona were architects of their own downfall, rather than any players or coaches. As they sank into crisis, Coutinho’s wages became a cost that Barcelona couldn’t really afford but were still contracted to pay. There was talk of a move to PSG, or of a return to the Premier League, perhaps to Chelsea or Arsenal, but neither came to pass.
By this January’s transfer window, Barcelona still needed him off their ledger and Aston Villa were ready to make a bid. They will take him on loan until the end of this season, paying 65% of his wages, and they also have an option to buy which is set at £33.5m.
It looks like a very good bit of business. Villa have the second half of the season to properly assess Coutinho and establish whether he can get his career back on track, and if it does look like it’s going to, then the transfer fee certainly doesn’t look unreasonable. Reuniting him with Gerrard, alongside whom he played for three seasons at Liverpool, is a connection to happier times in his career. For the club itself, the arrival of such a high-profile player may alleviate some of the unhappiness among supporters caused by the sale of Jack Grealish to Manchester City.
And for Coutinho, this may be a last chance to revive a playing career that has been hampered by inconsistency and injury since he left Liverpool four years ago. He must surely appreciate his immense fortune in life’s lottery to earn this amount of money for doing what he loves, and to continue he needs to go some way towards demonstrating that he is worth many thousands of pounds per week. At 29, time may be starting to run out, but if Coutinho and Villa can make this work, it could turn out to be one of the transfer coups of the season.