In appointing Steven Gerrard – a manager relatively low on experience but sky high in potential and name recognition – to replace Dean Smith in November, Aston Villa signified their ambition.
With their first signing under the 41-year-old former Rangers boss, Villa have made a statement of intent.
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— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 12, 2022
Philippe Coutinho was one of the Premier League’s standout attacking players by the time Barcelona swooped him away to La Liga in a club-record £146 million deal in January 2018. Four years on, he returns to English football a vastly diminished asset, but still as hugely gifted creator with the tools to be a transformative addition for 13th-placed Villa.
Coutinho and Gerrard
“He is an outstanding footballer who boasts a highly impressive CV laced with plenty of elite honours,” Gerrard said upon the announcement that Villa had picked up Coutinho on loan for the rest of the season, with a £33 million option to buy the 29-year-old outright in the summer.
“I am really pleased that we have been able to bring him on board and I am looking forward to working with him.
“He is a player I enjoyed playing with previously and I know the rest of the squad here at Aston Villa will benefit from his quality and experience. His presence will be invaluable given injuries and the AFCON tournament have reduced our attacking options.”
Despite a difficult few seasons for the Brazilian, Gerrard has insisted the market for Coutinho this month was significant, and that several clubs of higher current standing than the Midlanders were chasing his signature.
It is evidence of Gerrard’s pulling power that he was able to convince his former Liverpool team-mate to choose Villa Park over other options; likewise the believed-to-be imminent arrival of another former Barcelona player, Everton and France left-back Lucas Digne. And it is indicative of Coutinho’s desire to play for his new club and his new manager that he has reportedly agreed to a pay cut to do so.
Former Villa captain Jack Grealish has previously admitted that Coutinho, while at Liverpool, was a player he admired greatly and of whom he studied video in order to improve his own game. Stylistic similarities between the pair abound, and Coutinho will surely now be tasked with filling the creative void still apparent in Villa’s attack after Grealish’s £100 million move to Manchester City last summer, with the likes of Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia yet to fully convince.
To do that, though, Coutinho must first prove that the powers that once made him one of the world’s most expensive players – his blockbuster Barca move still ranks as the third-most-expensive transfer of all time – remain intact.
What went wrong?
Despite the eye-watering fee, Coutinho was something of a panic purchase for Barcelona. In the wake of Neymar’s shock £198 million departure for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017, the Catalans scrambled for big-name signings. First came Ousmane Dembele in a £97m million deal from Borussia Dortmund; then, mid-season, they convinced Liverpool to part with their prized Brazilian.
Injuries and inconsistency have rendered Dembele a Barcelona bust, with the gifted French winger likely to leave the Camp Nou as a free agent at the end of the current season. Coutinho fared no better.
Muscular troubles and a meniscus tear cost Coutinho game time at Barcelona and Bayern Munich – with whom he won the Champions League while on loan in 2019-20, helping eliminate his parent club by scoring twice in an 8-2 quarter-final thrashing – but the biggest barrier to success he faced in La Liga was how poorly he fit stylistically, showing how ill-thought-out his purchase had been.
At Liverpool, he was the attacking fulcrum; the enigmatic creator through whom the Reds funnelled their attacks. At Barcelona, that distinction was always going to belong to one Lionel Messi.
Coutinho was often shunted into a wide-midfield position in a 4-4-2 formation under Ernesto Valverde, bringing him too deep to be truly effective and shackling him with too much of a defensive workload.
In his Anfield pomp, Coutinho would typically attempt between 47 and 50 passes per 90 minutes. With Barcelona, his diminished role saw him average 40 passes per 90 in his last two full seasons and just 25 this term. His per-90 average for chances created fell from a Premier League peak of 2.9 to just 1.6 in his first La Liga campaign, sliding gradually to a low of 0.5 last season.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) January 12, 2022
“The key to Coutinho is to get him smiling and enjoying his football,” Gerrard said. “If he’s coming to work and enjoying the environment, we need to release the talent.
“He’s wanting to come to Aston Villa to enjoy his football and to play, to try and find his form and, if we get that and we unlock it, we’ve got a player on our hands.”
Coutinho arrives at Villa as a headline-grabbing and momentous signing for the club’s ambitious project. He has plenty to prove at this stage of his career, but if anyone can get him smiling again, it’s surely his old skipper.