Who would have thought that Philippe Coutinho, the third-most expensive footballer on the planet after his €160 million move to Barcelona from Liverpool in 2018, would sign for mid-table Aston Villa? Put it down to the magnetism of new Villa manager Steven Gerrard and his belief that the Brazilian midfielder can sprinkle stardust in England once again. But can he?
Since escaping what had become a nightmare at Barcelona, Coutinho has made a dream debut for Villa, with a goal in their comeback to draw 2-2 with Manchester United and then helping them to a win at Everton. Gerrard clearly believes that his former Liverpool teammate — the pair played together from 2013 to 2015 — can provide the spark and creativity to turn a useful but erratic team into top six challengers. Not every manager would have taken the gamble, but Coutinho’s former captain remembers how the Brazilian’s vision, spectacular goals and dribbling skills lit up Anfield for several seasons.
At Villa, Gerrard can offer a welcoming home where Coutinho can nurse a bruised ego back to health, remind him of how special he can be, and hope to rebuild his crumbled confidence. Coutinho is already acquainted with the bright young players who can help him light the way, like England striker Ollie Watkins, breakout midfielder Jacob Ramsey, tough and consistent John McGinn and gifted wide player Emi Buendia, who might be the sort of flair player to thrive alongside Coutinho’s subtle skills.
Against Everton, Coutinho’s first start meant no place for striker Danny Ings, who has not yet produced his Southampton form (34 goals in 67 games) since moving to the Midlands last August. For the moment, it seems Gerrard prefers the chemistry of Buendia and Coutinho playing just behind the striking threat of Watkins. But this all represents a happy selection headache for the manager, who also has winger Leon Bailey in the attacking mix when fit. The defence and goalkeeper rarely change and Villa are looking up rather than down, having picked up 16 points from 10 games since Gerrard took over from Dean Smith in November.
Much of Villa’s resurgence will depend on Coutinho proving that he is not yesterday’s man, and sadly that’s not something that can be taken for granted. His experience at Barcelona was brutal and bruising after arriving for a potential fee of €160m, which made him the third-most expensive transfer in history behind Neymar (€222m) and Kylian Mbappe’s (€180m) moves to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona and Monaco respectively.
The fee proved a millstone. Fans expected him to be their “new Neymar” or maybe play a little deeper in Andres Iniesta‘s role. Impossible boots to fill. And, of course, any new star signing for Barca at that time had to adapt to performing in the chorus line behind Lionel Messi. Not easy for any arrival.
Under that sort of pressure, Coutinho could show only glimpses of his Liverpool form. The fans turned on him, especially after an ill-judged “fingers in the ears” celebration after a Champions League goal against Manchester United. Coutinho’s former coach at Espanyol, Mauricio Pochettino, said: “Philippe has turned back into the shy boy from Brazil.”
Barca loaned him to Bayern Munich and, while he was there, he helped knock his parent club out of the Champions League with a two-goal cameo to round off a stunning 8-2 victory in the quarterfinals on the way to winning a Treble in 2019-20. But he was something of a fringe player throughout the season and the German giants did not exercise their option to make the move permanent. So it was back to Barcelona, a club deep in debt to the tune of €1.4 billion and desperate to get expensive stars off their wage bill. That is where Villa and Gerrard came in this month with a loan deal that could become permanent.
It might be exactly the right move for a gifted player who has lost his way after finding the expectation levels too high in Spain and Germany. With the friendly and understanding face of his old captain around, it’s not hard to believe Coutinho could reproduce the form that nearly inspired a Liverpool title in the Brendan Rodgers/Luis Suarez era, or the kind of performances that saw him shortlisted for the Player of the Year award in 2015, twice score “goals of the season” for Liverpool and where he was for a time regarded as indispensable.
England holds happy memories for him and, to some extent, Coutinho returns a sadder and wiser man, determined to prove a point to a lot of people. His once-dazzling reputation needs a boost, which might make him a dangerous proposition for Premier League defences.
Coutinho, still only 29, could be the comeback story of the season. But there is no guarantee in such a demanding environment and the fact that he needed to be substituted after 74 minutes at Everton on Saturday was a reminder that it will probably take time for him to hit peak fitness, something his manager admitted afterwards.
Gerrard has either pulled off a masterful coup, or taken a losing punt. We will find out soon enough. Either way, you suspect only Gerrard could have pulled off the signing, and it has moved Aston Villa — former European champions, remember — even further toward centre stage again.