Coutinho to Aston Villa: Can Gerrard help former Liverpool team-mate put Barcelona nightmare behind him?

Steven Gerrard Philippe Coutinho Liverpool GFXGetty/GOAL

It is fair to say that this is not the return Philippe Coutinho would have envisaged.

When he left the Premier League in January 2018, the Brazilian was ready to establish himself as one of the world’s best.

Four years later, he is seeking to rebuild his career, to put the nightmare of his ‘dream’ move behind him.

Not many players swap Barcelona for Aston Villa and see it as a step forward, but for Coutinho this was a much-needed switch.

The 29-year-old will, subject to a medical and successful work permit application, spend the rest of the season on loan at Villa, who have the option to make the move permanent come the summer.

Their manager, Steven Gerrard, played with Coutinho for two-and-a-half seasons at Liverpool, and his influence in this deal is clear. Villa, 13th in the Premier League, will rightly see it as a coup, even if others will take a more cynical stance.

Coutinho, lest we forget, is the third-most expensive player in football history. Only Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have ever been transferred for more than the £142 million ($192m) Barcelona agreed with Liverpool back in 2018.

He was 25 at the time, about to enter his prime and viewed in Catalonia as the heir apparent to Andres Iniesta, a player to both excite fans and deliver trophies.

He did the latter, kind of.

As Gerrard pointed out on Thursday, Coutinho’s Wikipedia page will tell you he won two La Liga titles and two Copas del Rey at Barcelona, as well as a Spanish Super Cup. It will also tell you he was a Champions League winner in 2020.

That’s not the full story, though.

For a start, that Champions League triumph came with Bayern Munich, to whom he had been farmed out on loan after just one full season at Camp Nou.

Coutinho, Barcelona’s biggest ever signing, actually helped knock them out of that season’s competition, scoring twice in Bayern’s infamous 8-2 semi-final win in Lisbon, a night which summed up just about everything that has been wrong with Barca in recent years.

He would return to his parent club, but never to deliver on his potential. There have been just 24 league appearances across the last two seasons, and only 30 in total.

As Barcelona have blooded youngsters, the likes of Nico, Gavi, Abdessamad Ezzalzouli and Yusuf Demir, Coutinho has had to content himself with a bit-part role, appearing occasionally and often ineffectually from the bench.

Philippe Coutinho Barcelona Liverpool GFX
Getty/GOAL

His place in the Brazil team has vanished, too.

His last cap came in October 2020, although he was, somewhat surprisingly, called up to the squad for November’s World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Argentina.

The likes of Lucas Paqueta, Raphinha, Anthony, Vinicius Junior and Mateus Cunha, however, all featured ahead of him; a sign of the challenge he faces if he wishes to force his way into Tite’s plans for Qatar.

Villa, of course, hope to be the beneficiaries, and will be banking on Coutinho rediscovering the magic which saw him light up Liverpool during his five years on Merseyside.

There was a reason, after all, that Barcelona wanted to pay all that money for him.

Coutinho’s talent is vast, his ability to carry the ball, pick killer passes and produce stunning long-range strikes has the potential to seriously improve Gerrard’s side, who remain inconsistent since the loss of talisman Jack Grealish to Manchester City in the summer.

Coutinho, naturally, has been linked to a host of Premier League clubs prior to this move.

Liverpool’s name was mentioned in just about every transfer window, though the Reds’ stance has always been the same; no interest, no chance of a return to Anfield, however highly he was thought of by Jurgen Klopp & Co.

Philippe Coutinho Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX
Getty/GOAL

He made more than 200 appearances for the Reds, scoring 54 goals, but fans remember the way he sought to engineer that move to Barca, the transfer request on the eve of the 2017-18 season and the curious ‘back injury’ which kept him out of action for weeks once Liverpool had refused to sell.

He actually captained the Reds in his penultimate game for the club, but Klopp’s side improved after he left.

The fee received for Coutinho effectively paid for the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, who would be key players as Liverpool became European, World and eventually Premier League champions.

They may have mourned his departure, but they haven't missed him.

There will, one imagines, be plenty of rubber-necking once Coutinho gets down to business for Villa.

Article continues below

Fans, pundits and observers will be keen to see just how much those four years have taken out of the player, and whether Gerrard can be the one to unlock that rich potential once more.

If he can, then Villa may have pulled off the signing of the window.

But it’s a big if.