Philippe Coutinho’s problems at Barcelona have been unfairly dramatized – Aston Villa are perfect for him
Barcelona players cannot escape criticism, and it’s not just because they represent a footballing giant with lofty ambitions, nor the high transfers and salaries that many have commanded. The culture around them is a continuous buzz of scrutiny, mostly due to the current state of affairs.
In that regard, late midfielder Philippe Coutinho – his most expensive signing ever with additions – stands out and he has company. Alongside him, the second most expensive acquisition, Ousmane Dembélé, suffered particularly critical media coverage amid speculation of a departure.
The 24-year-old winger didn’t make the difference in the final third, the pass or the ultimate shot often slipping past him. Narrow margins dictate public opinion on success, money well spent, etc. Despite Dembélé’s best efforts, his quick feet and forward bursts from forward positions fell on the wrong side of the line.
If the Frenchman followed Coutinho, the rewards would be there. Coutinho has already made an impression at Aston Villa, netting a goal on his debut to salvage a point against Manchester United, and that’s hardly a surprise. Dembélé’s relationship with Barcelona is at an impasse, and that’s not so surprising either, given the club’s current culture.
The players make or don’t make things happen on the pitch. And everyone sees it. There’s no hiding the Brazilian’s lack of impact from his heady days at Liverpool, but there’s more to it. The fact that Aston Villa’s new signing has a spring in his step says little about his shortcomings in Catalonia and more on the Spanish side itself. It did not allow him at all. Additionally, players have become more like pawns, released or renegotiated wages to stabilize finances.
It’s no coincidence that when Coutinho looks back on his career, he considers his peak away from Barcelona. For the Catalans, it’s easy to point the blame when you spend 160 million euros ($183m) on a player who fails to come to life. In reality, however, his frustrations reflected the team’s problems.
Coutinho, Dembélé and, to some extent, Sergiño Dest, were drafted into exceptional deals but, amid financial turmoil and a fading winning atmosphere, are now discussed in terms of failure, representing blows misplaced financial footholds in the process. Something is missing here, beyond the players themselves. Much of that stems from former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, his tenure characterized by rushed and reckless player transfers and no sporting vision.
The are high hopes for Ferran Torres, whose arrival hinged on a revamped and reduced contract for defender Samuel Umtiti. However, many wonder how Barcelona can afford such stars today even with flexible La Liga rules. Torres might turn out to be superb, but the nature with which the organization invests and keeps faith with multi-million signings deserves some questioning.
Coutinho will relish a clean slate at Villa. Sure, the fans expect a lot, but he can enjoy his football in a place that gets less headlines than his former employer. With the club stuck in mid-table obscurity and without any trophies to play for, there is little pressure for this season, at least.
Having his former Liverpool team-mate as a guide will also help. Steven Gerrard knows the quality he brings, which also eases the tension. Swapping Barcelona for Villa may seem like a step backwards. Considering what happened before, it’s a taste and offers a chance for better publicity, something it already maximizes.
Coutinho has always produced his best form in environments that greatly value him. It sounds trite, but it’s especially true for him. Although the charges suggest otherwise, that wasn’t the case at Barcelona. That’s not to say the club weren’t supportive, but the surrounding hype did hamper them. His most successful spells have been at Liverpool and Espanyol, the latter where he caught the eye while on loan as a young talent.
The early signs look promising in Birmingham, where there has been a lot of excitement about his transfer, despite what happened – or didn’t happen – in Spain. Welcoming such a good footballer is too good to be true for some fans. The contrast in tone between Barcelona and Villa is striking.
It is of course loaned. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how Villa can fail. Barcelona, on the other hand, have already done so. Barcelona have already made their run with Coutinho. Should the midfielder return to Barcelona with a portfolio of mazy dribbling and spectacular goalscoring, it would only illustrate the player he struggled to unlock. It would also remind him of a heavy monetary loss, which he will never recover.
Barcelona paid top dollar for Coutinho. In the end, with all the drama, there was little reward.