Coutinho’s transfer marks the end of Barcelona’s costly mistake

Philippe Coutinho’s 2018 departure has come to define Barcelona’s post-Neymar years, but the player and club have officially broken connections.

It’s the end of a mistake.

Philippe Coutinho has moved to Aston Villa on a permanent transfer for a relatively paltry £15 million ($21 million) after excelling on loan this winter and spring, ending one of the most depressing stints for any player at any club in football history. Through no fault of his own, the Brazilian has come to represent the calamitousness of Barcelona’s post-Neymar years, and his departure seems to be an important part of Xavi’s process of rebirth.

Coutinho scored 41 goals in 160 games during his time inBarcelona, which doesn’t sound too bad—just it’s that only 26 of those goals came for Barcelona, and two of them, notoriously, came against Barcelona for Bayern Munich in the club’s most humiliating result in history, an 8–2 defeat in the Champions League quarterfinals in August 2020.

Philipe Coutinho presentation as a Barcelona player

Coutinho is not entirely to blame. He was never what Barcelona expected of him. After signing Neymar in the summer of 2017 for a whopping €222 million, more than doubling the current world record—the first time the record cost had risen so much since the 1890s—Barcelona was left with two challenges.

First, Neymar was the club’s future: he was the youngest member of the fabled Lionel Messi–Luis Suárez–Neymar front line, and it was assumed that he would eventually supplant Messi as the team’s emblem. Barcelona required a young(ish) creator to fill that role.

Second, there was a sensation of embarrassment. Barcelona was believed to be among the best in the world. How might it be pushed aside by a wealthier opponent, as Real Madrid did with Luis Figo in 2000? All of the old neuroses from the 1970s and 1980s, all of the pre–Cruyff Dream Team inferiority complex, surged to the surface. It had money, and there appeared to be an urgent need to spend it on a few players to make a statement (Ousmane Dembélé, signed from Dortmund for £135.5 million, was the other; his tenure at the club has been hampered by injuries and contract disputes, but he leads La Liga in assists this season). Liverpool used the situation masterfully, convincing Coutinho to sign a new deal in January 2017, then delaying discussions until January 2018 to obtain the highest possible sum, which they used to buy Virgil van Dijk and Alisson. That is the peculiarity of Neymar’s signing. Liverpool was the only true winner.

Coutinho as a Bayern player

Coutinho made his Barcelona debut against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey. He got off to a good start, with a couple of lovely touches and nutmeg that pleased supporters eager for a new hero. But Coutinho was neither the new Andres Iniesta nor the new Neymar, nor was he even a cross between the two. Rather, with his unwillingness to push and unreliability, he had become something of a luxury for a Barcelona team whose elderly midfield was already having to cover for an increasingly indulgent front line.

When Barcelona faced Liverpool in the 2019 Champions League semifinals, he was booed by supporters from both teams. He was hauled out of both games after around an hour. To witness him on the bench at Anfield that night as Liverpool staged one of the most unexpected comebacks in competitive history was to see a player contemplating how his career could have turned out. Instead, he became the punchline to the popular cry “We’ve Got Salah.”

Both sides required a formal and definitive departure from Barcelona. As Xavi rebuilds, highly paid mementos of the recent past must be removed. Coutinho will be 30 in June. He should have another two or three years at the top level, if not longer. Without a doubt, Aston Villa is a step-down, but he has reconnected with a player from his Liverpool days in Steven Gerrard, who is now the manager at Villa Park and obviously appreciates him.

“This is a fantastic acquisition for Aston Villa.” Phil is a perfect professional, and his effect on the team has been palpable since his arrival in January,” Gerrard said in a statement. “With his demeanor on and off the field, he’s also a tremendous role model for our younger players, who can only benefit from his experience.”

Coutinho risks following in the footsteps of James Rodriguez: too talented and pricey for the great majority of teams, but without the feeling of defensive duty necessary by the very top. Villa could easily replace Everton in his eyes. This, too, is a club full of costly players who have yet to break through elsewhere, as well as extremely young stars on the rise—and Lucas Digne.

But it’s also conceivable that Villa may prove to be the right home for him, a club just below the very top where his abilities can blossom and he will be adored for who he is rather than chastised for not being exactly what others want him to be. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s reconstruction may continue, with a tangible loss on a mistaken deal gone tragically wrong adding to the total.

Leave a Reply