It was January 2018 and Philippe Coutinho was sat on a plane to Barcelona, having said goodbye to Liverpool. Any sadness he felt at departing Anfield must have been balanced by anticipation at the prospect of emulating Ronaldinho under the Camp Nou lights.
Though Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield revolution was promising much and there were those who suggested Coutinho would regret the move, the majority understood why he made it. For many players, particularly those from South America, Real Madrid and Barcelona have represented the pinnacle of football for the majority of the 21st century. With Lionel Messi in place and a Neymar-shaped whole to fill, it made sense for Coutinho to go.
The Reds held their nerve and coaxed every last penny from the deal, which ended up at just over £140m. It was more than enough to fund their next step, covering the fees for Virgil van Dijk, already through the door that winter, and Alisson Becker who arrived at the end of the season. They knew who they were dealing with, a desperate, self-absorbed super club obsessed with the notion of identity and putting itself in the clasp of financial ruin to maintain it.
Three years on, and the carnage this deal has left in its wake is difficult to quantify. Coutinho never hit the ground running, unable to match the style and performance level of Neymar. Injuries cost him any consistency and the fans soon turned on him.
Between himself, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, who joined the following summer, Barcelona went big in a bid to replace the former heir to Messi’s thrown after his spectacular desertion in 2017 but all they managed to do was fling themselves into a level of debt which would eventually force Messi out of the door. They now are desperatively to to clear the decks to even register any new recruits they could afford.
The depths sunk have been lower than almost anybody thought possible. Standing tall upon a pedestal as arguably the greatest club side ever seen a decade ago, now Barcelona are scrambling to get themselves on the right track.
It would have been easy to think the low point of Coutinho’s saga in Cataluña was a 4-0 defeat back at Anfield in the 2019 Champions League semi final, after a 3-0 home win in the first leg. That was a seminal moment in some ways, but the latest example of a gradual, painful decline as well. Barcelona had been on the wrong side of some humiliating defeats in Europe and the worst was yet to come, shrouded in calamitous irony.
For Coutinho, who left Liverpool in order to win the Champions League, seeing his former club celebrate that victory and then go on to lift the title for a sixth time will have been a low point. A year later, though, he came on as a substitute for Bayern Munich, where he’d spent a season on the periphery during a loan spell, against Barcelona. It was once again the Champions League semi-final, and he scored twice against his parent club in an 8-2 victory.
Nothing quite sums up the farcical devolution at Barcelona quite like their record signing, whom they quickly discarded, sticking the knife into them like that. What is worse, he returned and has been a financial burden on the club ever since. At the age of 29, his chances of resurrecting his career to former glories are almost non-existent. Liverpool have evolved and changed without ever directly replacing him but even they have never returned for him at a cut-price deal. Failing to impress at Bayern was probably the end of his time as an elite footballer.
There were links with newly-rich Newcastle from the moment they were taken over and even before as the deal rumbled on for 18 months. It felt like an ideal fit for a club needing a marquee signing to kickstart a new era and a seller desperate to see the back of him. This window, there were six Premier League clubs in talks with him but by Friday morning, a reunion with former teammate Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa was confirmed.
Technically, and in terms of game intelligence, Coutinho will add a lot to Villa. Capturing him is a coup for the club and evidence, if any were needed, of Gerrard’s pulling power. Perhaps helping a club reach the next level is exactly what he needs to reinvigorate his career but he was caught up in the most stunning fall from grace of a top club ever. He’ll have to take some responsibility, but Barcelona cannot escape the fact that they presided over one of the worst transfer’s ever and arguably cost him his career.
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