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  • Writer's pictureAlan Feehely

Philippe Coutinho: The Perpetual Misfit

Blinding white teeth, tattoos and a perfect fade. Philippe Coutinho, returning to Estádio São Januário in the summer of 2017 with his wife Ainê, was the image of local boy done good - the Brazilian wunderkind who made it big in Europe before returning home to pay his respects to the sporting institution that gave him his start.

In his case this was Vasco da Gama, the Rio de Janeiro club he had left seven years earlier. He met with the president and shook hands with everyone in the dressing room before being serenaded by supporters as he was presented on the pitch.

Viewed in isolation, Coutinho was a man who had it all - a strong connection with his boyhood club, financial strength, the glint of European prestige, a beautiful wife and a healthy young family. But as is always the case in football, the perfect story doesn’t exist. No matter how good you are - unless you’re Lionel Messi - there will always be someone better. Circumstances can often align in a manner that you’d never expect, setting off a chain reaction that can derail any train. When Coutinho visited São Januário that July he was at the peak of his powers - the creative lynchpin of a Liverpool side on the up with the World Cup on the horizon the following summer. Three years later, he’s fighting for his place in a Barcelona team at a low ebb as well as in the Brazilian national team.

Born in Rocha, a neighbourhood in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro, Coutinho joined Vasco da Gama at the age of seven where his precocious talent quickly became evident. By 16, he had attracted the attention of Internazionale, who signed him for €4m in 2008. FIFA rules, however, meant that he stayed in Brazil on loan until he turned 18, allowing him to form part of the Vasco side that won the 2009 Brasileirão Série B. “Coutinho was always seen as the jewel of the Vasco youth system,” remembers Rio-based journalist Lucas Pedrosa. “Alongside Neymar, he was viewed as one of the most promising players in Brazilian football, always considered a craque coming through.

“He started playing futsal at Vasco before graduating to football. His evident qualities included quick dribbling, quality ball-carrying and enviable vision. The only thing he was missing as a youngster was a strong physique and an ability to finish from outside of the box, something he developed at Espanyol and later Liverpool. He was sold to Inter before he turned 18, but he spent 2009 and 2010 at Vasco. He played well in a few matches but he wasn’t an absolute starter - he was too young. When he turned 18, he joined Inter and has since stayed in Europe. Vasco fans are passionate about Coutinho. It’s a big dream for everyone here for him to return and end his career here.”

Coutinho arrived at an Inter side in transition. José Mourinho had just joined Real Madrid after winning the treble, and Rafael Benítez, an altogether different character, had taken charge. Upon arrival, chairman Massimo Moratti was quoted as saying Coutinho was “the future of Inter”. It didn’t quite work out like that - Coutinho failed to cement a starting role and spent the latter half of his second season on loan with Mauricio Pochettino’s Espanyol. “He was highly touted and hyped. Everyone was thrilled at having signed such a highly-rated young player at the time,” remembered Milan-based journalist Nima Tavallaey Roodsari.

“He arrived after the treble - Benítez had taken over and during his short and awful stint in charge of Inter he overtrained, overworked and overplayed the squad, resulting in over 40 muscle injuries before Christmas. Coutinho was one of those who fell victim to that, so he was largely disappointing at Inter resulting in him being loaned out and subsequently sold. I was surprised he did as well as he did at Liverpool because, in my honest opinion, I’ve never seen him as a top player. Sure, he’s a very good player, but he’s not an absolute top-line talent like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Kevin De Bruyne, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Upon his return to Inter from Espanyol, Coutinho continued to struggle to make an impact at the San Siro. The following January he was made available in the market - Southampton, managed by his former coach Pochettino, registered an interest, but in the end, it was Liverpool who won out, signing him for €8.5 million. He ended up spending five years on Merseyside, a stint in which he undoubtedly played the best football of his career, before leaving for Barcelona in the winter transfer window of 2018. “He’s won everything since he left Liverpool, but I reckon it’s a call he regrets massively,” opined Liverpool supporter Frank Byrne.

“He was bought as Andrés Iniesta’s replacement but he gives the ball away far too often to ever be that, and I’m not sure he has a best position either. He’s not a number 10 - I think he does his best work on the left of a front three, but teams want pace there nowadays. He’d tell you he’s an eight but I’m not sure he’s physically able for it. At his best, he’s an outrageous talent, a seriously good player. His numbers in his last six months at Liverpool were absolutely outrageous. I think he’s a player Jürgen Klopp saw as too good not to use, but he’s not someone Klopp would sign. The way he carried on to get out of Liverpool was embarrassing. Personally, I can’t be arsed with him because of it and the majority of Liverpool fans will say the same.”

Galway-based journalist John O’Sullivan holds a similar opinion. “I don’t blame him for going, but it was awful profiling from Barcelona. He’s nowhere near as good as Iniesta, and then he’s too slow to play in the same front three as Messi. He developed a lot at Liverpool, but what always held him back was decision-making and tactical awareness. He’s a street footballer, an off-the-cuff player who needs to be indulged to thrive. He doesn’t always sync into a plan, as evidenced at Barça and Bayern Munich. It’s why he could never, along with aerobic limitations, play in the centre of midfield consistently - his lack of positional awareness exposes the team.

“At his best, he’s a wondrous footballer, but he has to be the lynchpin and not just another cog in a machine. His antics to force a move have really sullied his image amongst the Liverpool supporters. He came in as an inconsistent Inter cast-off and developed into a brilliant player, but he feigned injury - often before important fixtures - to cause disruption. In his final season he was arguably the best player in the league. Liverpool scored every 23 minutes when he and the front three were on the pitch together. He was a balletic agent of anarchy playing the most aesthetically pleasing, playground-inspired brand of football, with velvet smooth technique and vision and imagination to match.”

From an international perspective, Coutinho featured heavily from the start, forming an important part of the Brazilian team that won the South American under-17 football championship in 2009 and the under-20 World Cup in 2011. He failed to make the squad for the home 2014 World Cup, but did play in the Copa América the following two summers and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He also formed part of the team that won the 2019 Copa América in Brazil. “He’s not as talked about in Brazil as some other high-profile Europe-based players, which I imagine is down to his quiet personality,” explained Joshua Law, a London-based journalist who spent much of the previous decade living in São Paulo.

“Having said that, his initial perceived failure at Barça was very much in the news, especially after he underperformed at the 2018 World Cup. What both of those episodes tell us is that Coutinho is better used as part of a forward three or a quartet rather than a midfield three. His best performances for Brazil came in 2016 and 2017 during the World Cup qualifying campaign, where he played as a right winger with license to roam. At that point he was also starring for Liverpool and was seen as an integral part of the team.

“More recently, that perception has changed and he is now questioned quite a lot. He started last year’s Copa América as the team’s attacking fulcrum, but did not perform particularly well. Everton Cebolinha stole the attacking spotlight and there are plenty of Brazilians who would prefer to see a Seleção starting line-up without him. In terms of what to expect going forwards, a lot will depend on what happens at Barcelona. If he can keep up the form he has shown in the number 10 role this season and rebuild some of his fragile confidence then he might well be able to transfer that to the Seleção. If Tite adapts a similar formation to Barcelona - a double pivot and a number ten - which it looks like he might, Coutinho would seem well suited to the latter role. The Seleção’s attacking midfield options are plentiful, though, so he will have to keep up his club form. He’s no longer an automatic choice.”

Tom Sanderson, a Barcelona-based journalist who, like Law, spent much of the previous decade in São Paulo, agreed. “He doesn’t really fit the carioca stereotype of being outgoing and fun-loving, and instead seems to be a reserved and quiet family man,” he explained. “During the last World Cup, while Neymar was rolling around the floor and getting nowhere with his tiresome showboating, Coutinho was Brazil’s best player and the public really warmed to him for just getting on with it. I think he was misunderstood as petulant by the Barça fans, however, in his first stint at the club. Cupping his ears to the Camp Nou crowd after scoring a golazo against Manchester United in the Champions League probably wasn’t well-advised, but nor was the manner in which he became scapegoated and driven out of the club to Bayern Munich after the semi-final loss to Liverpool fair either.

“His first assignment with the Blaugrana has to be put into context. He was played out on the left wing, out of position, but is now thriving in Ronald Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 as the central attacking midfielder. Alongside Ansu Fati, he has been the Catalans’ best player prior to the international break and has carried his good form on to the Brazilian national team in their World Cup qualifiers. I believe that if Camp Nou were allowed to have a paying audience, he would have already received a standing ovation or at least hearty applause. At 28, he should be hitting his peak around now. Having won the Copa América and the Champions League already, this is pretty much his ceiling. But let’s not overlook that he was an impact sub for Bayern Munich in Lisbon, so maybe winning that title at Barça as a leading man is as good as it gets. The next World Cup will probably be his last chance for Brazil due to age too, so they are his career-defining goals.”

Statistically, Coutinho is an elite performer in terms of non-penalty goals per 90, non-penalty xG per 90, OP shot-creating actions per 90, passes into box per 90, yards progressed per 90, pass completion percentage and successful dribbles per 90. Fresh off his loan spell at Bayern Munich last season, where he scored two goals in that infamous 8-2 Champions League quarter-final demolition in Lisbon, Coutinho has returned to Catalonia seemingly reinvigorated, given more creative responsibility and responding accordingly. His good form has also transformed his international prospects, running the show for Brazil in consecutive victories over Bolivia and Peru this past international break in the centre of midfield alongside Douglas Luiz and Casemiro.

Image from FootballSlices

At 28, the time to realise his potential is now, and he’ll never get a better opportunity than this Barcelona team in transition. Many believe that Coutinho over-performed at Liverpool, and that he’ll never be able to recapture that form again. Should he wish to return and finish his career with Vasco da Gama, as Pedrosa hinted, he’ll want to do it with the full knowledge that he gave everything he had in his European career, that he became the craque he appeared destined to be. For that to happen, this season is pivotal.

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