“I would not have left for any other club, but Barcelona is something different. It is a dream, a place of magic for me.”
That was Philippe Coutinho speaking in January 2018, having sealed his transfer to Camp Nou from Liverpool.
Two-and-a-half years on, the dream has become a nightmare.
He turns 28 later this week, but Coutinho’s career is at a crossroads. He will be on the move again this summer, but to where? He could have walked into any side in the world once upon a time; now he finds his options shrinking fast.
The club that wanted him most don’t want him anymore. The club that rescued him don’t need him. Even the club that made him, who developed and indulged him and whose fans adored him, have moved on without him. Without Coutinho, Liverpool have grown stronger, hungrier, more successful.
Coutinho is the most expensive player in Barcelona’s history, the third most expensive in world football. He was the player Lionel Messi wanted to replace Neymar, the man Robert Fernandez, the Catalans’ sporting director, said would replace Andres Iniesta.
He’s done neither. He hasn’t played for Barca in more than year, his last appearance coming in a shock defeat to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final last May.
“A necessity,” read one headline when he moved to Spain, but it swiftly became apparent he was far from what Barcelona needed. Not quite quick enough to play wide, not quite smart or disciplined enough to play in the middle. He’d always looked like a Barca player, even at Liverpool, but he rarely played like one once he was there.
Medals came – they usually do at Barcelona – but Coutinho’s impact was fitful. He started well enough, with 10 goals and a Liga and Copa double in his first half-season, but if you want an insight into his struggles then consider this; in 18 months in Spain he started as many games on the bench in the league and Champions League as he did in five years at Liverpool.
He can’t say he wasn’t warned. Jurgen Klopp had sat down with him towards the end of the 2016-17 season, when it became clear that Barcelona would be acting on their interest.
“There, you’ll be just another player,” Klopp told Coutinho. “Here, you can be something more. If you stay, they will end up building a statue in your honour.”
The sales pitch didn’t work. Coutinho did his utmost to leave that summer, submitting a transfer request on the eve of the new Premier League season, then concocting a “back injury” which prevented him from training or playing.
Liverpool stood firm, but by the time January came they were ready to sell, ready to move on and reinvest, confident that the team could evolve and improve without him. The deal was worth £142million (€159m/$180m).
Eighteen months later Coutinho was on the move again, Bayern Munich paying €8.5m (£7.5m/$9.7m), as well as his salary of €13.5m (£12m/$15m), to loan him for a season.
A fee of €120m (£107m/$135m) was agreed should the Bavarians wish to make the move permanent this summer, but it was quickly clear that such a move was unlikely.
Just as at Barcelona, Coutinho found himself without a clear role. Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman locked down the wide roles while Thomas Muller, reborn under Hansi Flick, became Robert Lewandowski’s chief support act. Behind that, Joshua Kimmich, Thiago Alcantara and Leon Goretzka provided greater control and balance in midfield.
“Sometimes he gives the impression that he’s inhibited,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chief executive, in February. The same month, Flick, suggested Coutinho’s problem was that he was trying too hard to impress.
“Sometimes he puts a bit too much pressure on himself,” the coach told reporters. “He tries to put his stamp on the game when he plays, but not all decisions he makes are the right ones at the moment.”
Coutinho hasn’t played for Bayern since the Bundesliga restarted in May due to an ankle injury. And though his undoubted talent has been there in flashes – one performance against Werder Bremen in December stands out - there is little desire, either from within the club or among the fans, to pursue a permanent transfer this summer.
So what next then?
“In principle he’s a Barcelona player,” says coach Quique Setien, but a future at Camp Nou appears unlikely. Barca’s financial state is parlous, their debts alarming. The players accepted a 70 per cent pay-cut at the end of March, but talks over a new salary reduction for next season have yet to reach a conclusion.
Barcelona would like to sign Lautaro Martinez, the Inter striker, and they dream of bringing Neymar back from Paris Saint-Germain, but first they need to cut their wage bill and, if at all possible, raise money through player sales.
Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, their three most expensive signings, are viewed as the best ways to do this, but with the impact the coronavirus crisis being felt across Europe, the chances of selling just one of those players, let alone all three, have receded.
They had banked on interest in Coutinho from the Premier League, where his standout performances for Liverpool remain fresh in the memory. but it is hard, post-Covid-19, to see a suitable destination.
Liverpool have little need or interest, neither do Manchester City. Tottenham have money worries of their own, while Chelsea have already spent big on Hakim Ziyech and, soon, Timo Werner to boost a squad which was already top-heavy.
A reunion with Brendan Rodgers at Leicester is a non-starter, and a switch to Arsenal would see him turn his back on the Champions League. A move to Manchester United or even Everton, meanwhile, would be controversial, given his Anfield links.
Another loan appears the likeliest solution. “If he stays it’s because Barca couldn’t find another club,” says Ignasi Oliva, Goal’s Barcelona correspondent. “Don’t rule out another loan in the last days of the [summer] transfer window.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. This is not how dream moves are meant to turn out.
Coutinho had the world at his feet when he left Liverpool. Now, it’s on his shoulders.