Steven Gerrard must morph into the ‘magician’ to make the real Philippe Coutinho reappear

Old teammates who once thrived in the same side, now the manager has to help reinvigorate a player who once had the football world at his mercurial feet

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Tuesday 11 January 2022 07:44
Coutinho: Steven Gerrard is a football great

There is a sea of anger and a swell of regret, but mostly a spread of sadness layering the past four years of Philippe Coutinho’s career.

“A former magician who has long since ceased to be,” declared Kicker upon his loan to Aston Villa. The German publication had a front-row view of the 29-year-old’s temporary spell at Bayern Munich, during which chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said Coutinho “gives the impression that he is a bit inhibited”.

Their manager during his season-long loan in 2019-20, Hansi Flick, believed the Brazil international was trying too hard to impress and, as such, “not all decisions he makes are the right ones”.

One La Liga executive, at a recent lunch meeting, is said to have joked that those who disbelieve Coutinho is still a “magician” are blind because “didn’t you see how he made his talent vanish… and Barca’s investment in him?”

This month four years ago, becoming a punchline was the furthest future the player could have envisaged. Coutinho was an elite performer primed by some to become the heir to Andres Iniesta at Barcelona and the man the club would build around.

Instead, they have strongly attempted to get shot of him since 2019 – a task undermined by their lack of methodology behind signing him, the financial figures involved, and the manner in which they have severely depreciated an asset.

Villa manager Steven Gerrard – Coutinho’s former captain and friend – will need to reverse that rust to unearth his gold dust again, a requirement that will centre more on man-management and psychology than tactical tweaks.

“He was turned back into the shy boy from Brazil,” a source that knows the player well tells The Independent. “No confidence, no instinct in his football, and no purpose. He smells of fear now. He became so scared of doing the wrong things, I think he can’t remember the right things. Barcelona sold Cou the world but make him start from almost zero again. It was much worse than his time at Inter.”

The last line hangs around. It is a significant snippet because Coutinho’s difficulties in Italy as he transitioned from teenager to adult, leaving Rio de Janeiro for the first time, ultimately conditioned his decision to swap Liverpool for Barca.

When he moved to Milan at 18, his partner Aine “had to change her entire routine” and waved goodbye to her family and friends to smooth his path. Coutinho’s parents followed to fortify his support base, and as he told this writer in 2015. “It was hard for them. As they were old, it was difficult for them to learn the language or adapt to a new culture and ways of doing things like I could. My dad had to quit his job, which was painful because he loves to be busy. They eventually moved back to Brazil, so since then it has been me and my wife, although they are always involved.”

Coutinho would go on to detail plenty more sacrifices from his family, punctuating his story with the overriding take: “All my happiness and success is theirs. My career is for them.”

On the evening of 21 July 2017, in a private room at the palatial Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon district, the playmaker told Jurgen Klopp that those he held dearest wanted him to move to Spain. Coutinho’s future would revolve around their wishes as much as his own.

At this point, Barca had submitted their opening offer for the Brazilian to offset Neymar’s market-shifting £172m switch to Paris Saint-Germain. Coutinho’s body language at breakfast, when the news had only just hit Liverpool’s pre-season camp, had already told Klopp what the player later confirmed in their meeting: he was leaning towards exiting.

As the days progressed, his position became clearer and then concrete: Coutinho desperately wanted to go. His family were invested in the move happening and, after five happy but trophyless years on Merseyside, he was swayed by a new challenge that was heavily pushed by his “big brother” Luis Suarez.

Three bids from Barca were rejected that summer on account of three reasons, the primary one being that the timing didn’t suit Liverpool. The proposals were also well below the club’s valuation and Virgil van Dijk’s transformative transfer from Southampton was stunted by a tapping-up saga.

The latter two obstacles were cleared ahead of the turn of the year and, while losing a key player in January is never ideal for a club, Klopp believed Liverpool would move forward stronger.

And so on 6 January 2018, Coutinho and his family had their way. His £142m sale coincided with a long-scheduled New Year’s celebration for Liverpool’s staff at the manager’s home in Formby. Klopp had repeated the message he’d shared on the club’s website: “Players will come and players will go, that is football, but as a club we are big enough and strong enough to continue with our aggressive progression on the pitch, even when we lose an important player. We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.”

Coutinho’s motivations for leaving Liverpool were understandable, but the modus operandi in securing his exit still emits a thorough stink. His camp were empowered to force a move by whatever means necessary, which included briefing against Klopp, the player feigning a back injury, releasing news of his transfer request to Sky Sports before Liverpool had received it, threatening not to play in the Champions League and Suarez having secured a house for him in advance when the club’s stance was “not for sale this summer”.

The only action to truly incense Klopp, however, was the August meeting Coutinho had called with the senior players’ committee at Melwood to ask for their help in facilitating the transfer.

He’d roped the team into his troubles, which was unacceptable. Through it all, Liverpool never once briefed against Coutinho. Klopp stuck to the “back injury” line even when the issue was “only emotional” according to Brazil’s doctor during an international break – the German did not mind being ridiculed as he prioritised squad harmony.

In truth, the club didn’t need to say a word to taint Coutinho’s legacy at Anfield as he was doing it all on his own. The “unprecedented access” given to the Daily Mail in the final days of his transition from Liverpool to Barca still rankles on Merseyside. The “hour-by-hour, gripping inside story of the Brazilian’s £145m record deal”, complete with exclusive pictures felt crass but it did also underscore how much of a family affair his decision was.

Aine, along with his daughter, mother, father, two brothers and their wives were all present. Kia Joorabchian, the agent who drove the agreement and set up the publicity, delivered those dream words: “Philippe, today is the day you become a Barcelona player…”

Coutinho responded by saying: “Finally, tonight I feel I can sleep.” But restless nights have dominated his life since.

The playmaker switched from Merseyside to Barcelona in January 2018 in a £142m deal

Five years of stellar contributions for the one club that made him feel at home since leaving Brazil went up in smoke. The team he traded them for have treated him like he is responsible for their decline – a symbol of decay – when he is just a symptom of their hideous mismanagement and waste.

Neymar used to laugh around with Coutinho, telling him PSG would be the next destination. How far off was that prediction?

Coutinho has long checked out of fantasy land and lands at Villa with an overwhelming desperation to do really well and secure a permanent stay. He wants to remember the player he is and remind everyone else of it.

Gerrard has already smartly begun the reconstruction work, building Coutinho up in a press conference prior to the loan deal being sealed.

“Sixty-three caps for Brazil, a serial winner, played for Barcelona, was incredible at Liverpool,” the Villa manager spelled out.

“I don’t think you get a nickname as a Magician if you’re not a special footballer. He’s someone I’ve got an incredible amount of respect for.”

Coutinho is, crucially, someone Gerrard knows intimately, in terms of tactical strengths and weaknesses, but moreover as a person: what he needs on a human level to rediscover his best.

The Brazilian was warmly praised by Steven Gerrard ahead of his loan move to Aston Villa

The player’s glistening spells on the continent have been under managers who connected with him off the pitch: Mauricio Pochettino at Espanyol, then Brendan Rodgers and Klopp at Liverpool.

Gerrard knows Coutinho is sensitive, has been through a tormenting few years, and will desperately crave certainty – in his sense of belonging, but also what is expected of him.

It is inconceivable that Villa will make similar football misjudgements as Barca, who tried to cast the Vasco academy graduate as a Neymar-Iniesta hybrid, which is in contrast to his style.

Coutinho operates between the lines and further forward than Iniesta’s more disciplined midfield role, and naturally drifted central rather than stick to Neymar’s left-wing position.

He was a chief creator, but there was no chance he was displacing Leo Messi from that function. By the time Barca’s Ballon d’Or deity had departed, the club were already far done and dusted with their Coutinho experience.

At Villa, a sizeable Jack Grealish-shaped artistic hole requires filling. Perhaps the most tidy way to wrap up Coutinho’s past four years would be to admit that he needs the club much more than they need him.

The Magician has no other option but to make himself reappear to resuscitate his career. Although, in reality, it will be Gerrard waving the wand.

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