Liverpool fans were sent into mayhem when Philippe Coutinho left their beloved football club for FC Barcelona in January of 2018.
Completing a reported £105m transfer fee (rising to £142m with add-ons), Coutinho was touted as the incumbent successor to Barcelona’s legendary midfield player, Andrés Iniesta.
Unfortunately, since his record-breaking transfer, Coutinho has not lived up to his transfer fee and has since spent this season on loan at Bayern Munich where he has failed to replicate the high standards he set for himself on the red half of Merseyside.
So what has gone wrong for the Brazilian maestro since his ill-fated transfer from Liverpool?
Before we can answer this question, we must contextualise his role and performances at Liverpool. Before the arrival of Egyptian king Mohamed Salah, Coutinho operated on the left of Jürgen Klopp’s 4-3-3, mainly tucking into the half-space allowing flying Spaniard Alberto Moreno or industrious utility James Milner to overlap from left full-back to create overloads on the left-hand side.
This role was designed so that Coutinho could draw the opposition full-back out of position, making the opposition question whose role it was to mark the attacking maestro. Given his excellence at shooting from range, opposition defenders always had to remain tight on Coutinho, meaning that space would often open for Liverpool’s false nine Roberto Firmino or rapid winger Sadio Mané.
During that 16/17 season, Coutinho proved essential in Liverpool’s hunt for a Champions League berth, registering 13 goals and 7 assists in 31 league appearances. Interestingly, out of 36 games for the season, Coutinho operated as a left-winger for 28 of them, demonstrating Klopp’s willingness to play him wide in a 4-3-3.
This is an important facet to consider when we later analyse what went wrong for Coutinho at Barca.
Despite constant transfer rumours being thrown at him, Coutinho hit the form of his career in the early parts of the 2017/18 season, particularly during Liverpool’s Champions League run.
Supported by the inclusion of eventual PFA Player of the Year winner Mohamed Salah, Coutinho played on the left of a front four with Jürgen Klopp changing to a 4-4-1-1 system to accommodate Mané, Firmino, Salah and Coutinho.
Dubbed “Salmaninho” by Liverpool fans, Coutinho was a standout player in this front four, scoring five and assisting two in just four Champions League starts whilst also registering seven goals and six assists in 14 Premier League games. These are ridiculous numbers for a creative player.
Performances against Spartak Moscow (three goals) and Brighton (one goal, two assists) were particularly noteworthy. This saw Barcelona fans salivate at the prospect of Coutinho joining the likes of Lionel Messi and former teammate Luis Suarez in Catalonia.
After developing a mystery back injury which saw Coutinho miss £75m signing Virgil van Dijk’s debut in the FA Cup as well as a league game against Burnley, the writing was on the wall for Coutinho’s departure.
In the coming days, Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona in a move he would soon regret. Despite profiting massively from the transfer, Liverpool fans were seething at Coutinho leaving the club halfway through the season, especially given their fight for top four and their Champions League run.
Failing to score or assist in his first five appearances for the Catalonian powerhouse, Coutinho’s start in Barcelona got off to a rocky start.
Despite being recruited as an eventual successor to Iniesta in Barcelona’s famed 4-3-3, Coutinho spent the majority of his start at Barcelona consigned to a position on the right of a midfield four with Suarez and Messi the focal points in attack.
Manager Ernesto Valverde drew many critics for this approach, with much of Coutinho’s famed skillset going to waste in this system. Weeks later, Coutinho played his first game in his preferred position on the left of the midfield four and contributed one goal and one assist in a quality performance.
Much of the theory behind adapting Coutinho to this role was to allow him to fit in seamlessly with Suarez, Messi and fellow big-money signing Ousmane Dembele. With Messi normally operating within the spaces Coutinho normally likes to adopt, the system was inefficient for Coutinho’s productivity.
This saw the Brazilian fall out of favour by season’s end with him being benched in a key game against Valencia and subbed after 45 minutes against arch-nemesis Real Madrid.
The 2018/19 season was Coutinho’s worst season to date, registering just five goals and two assists in 34 La Liga appearances. The Barcelona experiment simply was not working. Coutinho was largely rotated with Dembele on the left of an attacking triumvirate with Suarez and Messi where it was clear he was not the focal point.
As such, his misery was compounded when Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League by former club Liverpool, suffering a 4-0 second leg defeat at Anfield in the semi-final.
It was time to change. His loan move to Bayern Munich at the start of this season was ineffective. Trialing Coutinho in a number 10 role between the lines of a 4-2-3-1, former manager Niko Kovač could not get the best out of him with Coutinho registering just three goals and five assists in 16 appearances.
In just his second game playing on the left under the new manager Hans-Dieter Flick, Coutinho managed three goals and two assists in a 6-1 victory against Werder Bremen. Since Kovač’s departure as manager, Coutinho has been effective when played yet struggles for match time in such a stacked Bayern outfit.
Given Barcelona’s signing of World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann, it’s difficult to see where Coutinho fits in at Barcelona, should he return from loan.
I think Coutinho should explore alternatives elsewhere, perhaps in the Premier League. Barcelona would be willing to accept a loss on what they paid for Coutinho, leaving many Premier League clubs interested in signing the Brazilian.
At just 27 years of age, Coutinho’s prime is still ahead of him. Could Liverpool re-sign their former star? Maybe, but I think the best move for Coutinho would be to a Champions League club where he is guaranteed to be a star player.
Chelsea is a perfect example. Under new manager Frank Lampard, Coutinho could play on the left-hand side of a 4-3-3, playing inverted and supplementing the likes of Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi. A similar role was played by former Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard.
Could Coutinho be the replacement Chelsea need? Time will certainly tell, but Coutinho can certainly re-assert himself on the world stage if given the keys to a correct system.