Coutinho feeling at home in Gerrard's Villa

Published on Jan 18, 2022 07:54 PM IST

This loan spell in the Premier League is crucial for the Brazilian in the World Cup year after his career went terribly off the rails at Barcelona.

Steven Gerrard, Manager of Aston Villa interacts with Philippe Coutinho. (Getty) PREMIUM
Steven Gerrard, Manager of Aston Villa interacts with Philippe Coutinho. (Getty)
By, Kolkata

One minute before he was brought on, Philippe Coutinho saw Manchester United double their lead. Aston Villa hadn’t beaten United at home in the Premier League since August 23, 1993, and had lost to them in the FA Cup third round earlier in the week. So, this wasn’t exactly the best of situations for a return to England in a bid to resurrect his career. 

But 10 minutes after his 68th minute entry, Coutinho found himself in the inside-left channel, possibly his favourite area of the pitch, one from where he can open his shoulders and let fly. This time the attacking midfielder played a short pass to Carney Chukwuemka, ran inside the penalty area to receive the ball back and find the young, promising Jacob Ramsey who moved into a pocket of space to score. 

Four minutes later, Coutinho scored his first goal in the Premier League in over four years. Emiliano Buendia, the gifted playmaker now showing signs of having settled down at Villa, found Ramsey whose square pass carved up the United defence and had Coutinho barging in to finish. 

“Phil gave me exactly what I wanted from the bench. It is only a matter of time before he is better,” said Steven Gerrard, the Villa boss. “There is still room for him to get fitter and stronger.” 

By way of immediate impact, this would almost equal Cristiano Ronaldo’s homecoming earlier in the season. But that is where similarities end. Ronaldo had been in imperious goal-scoring form since leaving United; Coutinho had suffered a crisis of confidence after almost four years at Barcelona, one of which was spent at Bayern Munich. The biggest single contribution for which Coutinho is remembered at Barcelona? His two goals for Bayern in that 8-2 drubbing of Barcelona in the 2020 Champions League quarter-final.

That is an uncharitable way to remember the Brazilian who has played 63 times for his national team and was a key performer in the 2018 World Cup but then few things about Coutinho and Barcelona seem like a match made in heaven. He won five trophies with Barcelona and scored in a Cop del Rey final against Real so Gerrard was right when he referred to Coutinho as a serial winner. More so because at Bayern, he was part of a club that won a treble including the Champions League. He has scored 25 goals and had 14 assists in 106 games at Barcelona but headlining a remembrance reel of Coutinho’s time in Barcelona would be those two goals. 

It didn’t begin that way. Coutinho was keen on moving to Barcelona and at his unveiling in January 2018, Josep Maria Bartomeu, then club president, had said: “One of the best players in the world is joining our club.” He had cost them 108 million pounds with the expenses going up to 142 million pounds including add-ons. But Barcelona were flush with money having sold Neymar for 196 million pounds and were keen on getting a player they thought would replace Andres Iniesta. 

They signed him on a five-and-half year deal with Coutinho’s annual salary being reportedly being 15 million pounds. If you wanted someone to replace Iniesta, you would have to pay so nobody complained. Chastened by Neymar being bought out, Coutinho’s buyout clause was pegged at 345 million pounds. It is a figure that doesn’t seem outrageous in the time of the club upping that amount to a billion euros (nearly 840 million pounds) but in 2018, it seemed so high that no one would dare poach Coutinho. Little did Barcelona know it would come to haunt them in the way it has. 

There have been a series of missteps associated with Bartomeu culminating in a debt of over a billion pounds which in turn meant they couldn’t keep Lionel Messi but the president wasn’t the only one who thought the world of Coutinho. Someone who knew how things worked at Barcelona better than most called him a “special player”, one of the few who could improve the team. That man, Xavi, is now coach at Barcelona and has overlooked Coutinho for players from Barcelona B. 

That was a measure of how far he has fallen from when he came on for Iniesta against Espanyol and in his first game did enough for Barcelona faithfuls to like him. Coutinho could never fit into the 4-3-3 that is the template there - Ronald Koeman’s being pragmatic and opting for 4-2-3-1 sparked such outrage that it hastened his departure. Coutinho did well when Messi was injured but within a year, he was a shadow of the player who had shone in over 160 games for Liverpool, scoring 34 goals including some under-the-wall free kicks like his hero Ronaldinho. The boos at Camp Nou grew louder. 

When Bayern took him, Coutinho flickered briefly but he didn’t do enough to get the Bavarian giants to keep him. Back at Barcelona, where managers had changed again with Koeman in charge, Coutinho featured in a few games. “Like any player, he needs the support and confidence of his coach, but this all starts with the player. He has demonstrated that he is a great player, and I am happy to have him with us,” Koeman had said in October 2020. 

But again he couldn’t hold on to form and soon it was Pedri who was the preferred choice. The bench was where Coutinho was most of the time so after scoring against Valencia, the Brazilian said: “I still have the same motivation, even more after all that has passed. I want to be good again, to be the best Philippe I can.” 

Not long after, Barcelona were courting Ferran Torres and that meant their ballooning wage bill needed to be pruned further. So, when Gerrard got Villa to actively pursue Coutinho, with the option to buy him in the summer, it was a win-win situation for both. 

“Phil has lifted everyone,” Gerrard said after Saturday’s 2-2 draw. Nearly 10 years ago, it was another loan move that ensured Coutinho’s career in Europe didn’t end before it could begin. His time at Inter Milan too was forgettable due to a string of manager changes and injury. It was at Espanyol under Mauricio Pochettino that Coutinho regained confidence and form. He returned to Inter and in 2013 was sold to Liverpool for 8.5 million pounds. 

Around this time last year, another loanee, Jesse Lingard, had a huge influence on the upswing in West Ham’s fortunes. If Coutinho, 29, can do likewise, it will not only mean Villa moving north in the league, it could in the World Cup year also reopen the door to the national team. One that has been shut since October 2020.

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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