Philippe Coutinho has been linked with a sensational return to Liverpool this summer.
The Brazilian left for Barcelona less than two years ago, but his first full season in Catalunya was such a disaster that the club are now willing to part ways with him in order to lighten the load on their wage bill. Many sides have been linked with the Brazilian, but Liverpool are emerging as strong contenders to bring him back to the Premier League.
Who would be the winners and losers in that situation? We have a look.
Imagine being Philippe Coutinho and, in your greatest hour of desperation, being rescued by the one place you can be assured of not only a hero’s welcome but a fierce, devoted fanbase. It’s utterly implausible that Coutinho could come out of his current situation as a winner, and yet if he were to join Liverpool that is exactly what he would be.
When he left the Reds, they didn’t have the defence nor the attack for a title challenge. He was their best player by some distance. By leaving, he forced those he left behind to step up in attack. Mohamed Salah, in particular, seemed to take Coutinho’s exit as a challenge to excel as incessantly as possible. And through the funds generated by his sale, Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk and Alisson to transform their defence.
Liverpool have since become a club on Coutinho’s level, and now they want him back? If Klopp says he’s back, the Liverpool fans will fall into lockstep behind him (honestly, who wouldn’t? You’d follow Klopp off the edge of a cliff, wouldn’t you?) and Coutinho gets to be the chief playmaker for an elite club that, hey, just happens to be champions of Europe. What a result!
Of course, Coutinho only gets to play for the defending champions of Europe because he has been so impressively bad for the two-time defending champions of Spain. Coutinho’s first half-season in Barcelona couldn’t have gone better. He helped his side win La Liga and the Copa del Rey, and even their Champions League humiliation benefited him personally as it showed how important he was that they lost 3-0 to Roma without him.
But something went wrong over the summer, and it can’t have been the World Cup because Coutinho was excellent in Russia. No, the Brazilian came back and 2018/19 was a disjointed mess for him. He looked lost in midfield and utterly incapable of asserting himself in attack. He only had enough air in his lungs for about 30 good minutes and even then that time was mostly spent ruining attacks generally looking like a square peg in a round hole. Amidst all the hype over his return, it cannot be forgotten: if Coutinho rejoins Liverpool it’s because he failed so monumentally at Barcelona.
Neymar wants to leave Paris Saint-Germain. This is no longer even an open secret it’s just sort of the truth. The problem is he only really wants to join Barcelona, and the Blaugrana have already spent a fair bit of money this summer on Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann. So even though they ended up not chasing Matthijs de Ligt and saved €75m, it’s not likely that they have the funds sat around to sign Neymar.
But if Coutinho were to join Liverpool? Suddenly Barcelona have an extra €90m or so on their books. Add that to what they’ve already got and it’s not inconceivable they could throw €150m at PSG. That’s a really tempting offer for a club desperate to unload a player they see as a massive distraction. And would certainly make PSG more amenable towards letting Neymar go back to Barcelona.
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Loser: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The one thing Liverpool’s midfield was lacking last season was a proper attacking force at the head of it. Fabinho is a rock-solid pivot, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner are hard-working box-to-box types and Naby Keita is a magician who starts deeper. There’s no one at the tip of the spear, so to speak.
Liverpool tried to get someone a year ago, but their bids for Nabil Fekir were rejected. Still, Jurgen Klopp didn’t feel too bad because he knew Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would, after a season, be back in the side. Oxlade-Chamberlain laboured for years at Arsenal, stuck out wide. Liverpool pulled him into the middle and he began to excel. His ability to carry the ball made him a potent prospect at the tip of the midfield spear. Sadly, injury robbed him of an entire season and two Champions League final appearances.
But now he’s fit again, he is ready to rock and roll in 2019/20 and will offer Liverpool thrust and drive at the head of their midfield. Finally, now is his time! Except if Coutinho re-signs for the club, because then it’ll just be his time to sit on the bench and watch the brilliant Brazilian go to work. Sure he’d see rotational minutes, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Winner: Jurgen Klopp
One of the hardest things in the world is to improve a winning side. Once you’ve won something, especially if it’s a major trophy, complacency can be a real issue within the squad. It becomes harder to lift them to challenge again the following season. One way to keep a side fresh is with signings, but how do you know who to sign? You need someone who is both brilliant but also a good fit personality-wise. And how can you possibly know that beforehand? There’s so much risk involved.
Unless, y’know, you sign a guy who used to play for you. A guy who was your best player until he left. A guy whose departure allowed you to improve the side to such a massive degree that when he returns he would struggle to crack the top three. And Liverpool would do all of those things if they brought Philippe Coutinho back.
How much could Coutinho improve Liverpool? It’s hard to say. But having won the Champions League, the Reds will now surely set their sights on winning their first league title since 1989. Coutinho has just helped Barcelona win two league titles on the spin (well “helped” is a bit generous on that second one) so could bring that experience back to Anfield to help them mount the ultimate challenge.
Yes, they’d be getting rid of an unhappy player. Yes, they’d probably get a lot of money for him. Yes, with the space on their wage bill they could probably make a concerted effort to bring Neymar back. But if they have to sell Philippe Coutinho less than two years after signing him for the third-biggest transfer fee in the world, Barcelona will be a laughing stock.
It will make a mockery of their club vision. They were clearly after Coutinho for a year before making a move in summer 2018. Their ex-players courted him openly, trying to convince the Brazilian that Barcelona was for him. Meanwhile, his natural position didn’t exist at the Camp Nou and the one they wanted him to play, on the left of a midfield three, would have required so much tactical work for him to adapt to.
Barcelona went hard for Coutinho even though he wasn’t an obvious fit. They pursued him simply because he was talented. And predictably he struggled to find his place in a side full of people playing exactly where they know how to play. This kind of thoughtless transfer activity has been a huge problem for the Blaugrana in recent years, lumbering them with players that are either ill-fitting or that the coaching staff does not want. Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Malcom are the most recent examples.
So Barcelona are a loser because this has laid bare just how difficult it is to play for Barcelona and how unforgiving the fans can be. When a player as talented and high-profile as Coutinho can move on after just an 18-month stay, what else can you call them but a shambles? They signed Coutinho from Liverpool but then, even with Coutinho, got the sense smacked out of them at Anfield as Liverpool knocked them out on their way to winning the Champions League. They took Liverpool’s best player, and Liverpool still beat them.
Worse still than even that is the sheer scale of the deal. Coutinho is third-most expensive player of all-time. The sheer magnitude of his individual failure makes him arguably the biggest flop of all-time. In fact, selling him now and prevents him from perhaps turning things around and confirms his status. Barcelona, take the L.