Philippe Coutinho: love him or loathe him, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him.
He had plans to leave Liverpool in his dust, but soon found himself overtaken by the Reds on their way to the top of the European football ladder; a sequence of events which has him already dreaming of a return to the club he once felt he had outgrown.
The series of decisions he has made in the meantime have resembled something from an elaborate Monty Python sketch. Despite winning league titles with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, his reputation, value and standing within the game have tumbled down the stairs, culminating at a career-low point where a loan to Arsenal – who just finished eighth in the Premier League – looks like his best and most realistic option.
The game isn’t quite a bogey for poor little Phil just yet. At 28 years old, if he can make his next move count, then he may still be able to salvage a career we can look upon as memorable for the right reasons, rather than the wrong ones.
After all, there is a very, very good player in there somewhere. You can say what you like about Barcelona’s catastrophic, haphazard transfer policy, but there was some vague reasoning in their decision to outlay well north of £100m for his services – that sort of thick, choking smoke just doesn’t come without fire.
Much has been said about his final six months at Anfield, how he struggled to find a regular place for himself at a time when Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing system was just beginning to truly flourish. In the first half of the 2017/18 season, however, he managed seven goals and six assists in 14 league appearances; that’s getting into Kevin de Bruyne territory.
Those stats, however, fail to tell the whole story. Here’s the other half of the coin: in all competitions in 2017/18, Liverpool won eight of the 19 games they played with him; they won 24 of the 30 in which he didn’t feature.
To break that down into even simpler terms, that’s a 42% win rate with him, and an 80% win rate without him. Even factoring in that he never played with the game-changing Virgil van Dijk, those are concerning numbers.
How is it, then, that such a creatively potent player can have such a seemingly negative influence on their team’s fortunes?
It all comes down to his work-rate, or lack thereof. He simply isn’t suited to playing on the left of a high-pressing front three, or as part of a tightly-knit midfield line, or even as a No.10 with strict tactical requirements. That’s not because it stifles his creativity; he has the vision and spacial awareness to dig an assist out of virtually any position; it’s because the work he doesn’t do essentially hangs his team out to dry.
This is why, despite posting up decent goal and assist numbers at both Barça (56 apps, 21 goals, 11 assists) and Bayern (34 apps, nine goals, right assists), he has failed to win over four different permanent managers since leaving Anfield. Bayern in particular had Thomas Muller, a player who can do Coutinho’s job creatively while also putting a shift in and ensuring his team aren’t a man light in defence.
It’s part of the reason Liverpool were happy to let him go without directly replacing him. Instead, they used the funds to offset the acquisitions of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho – three players who, through indirect means, have won them more points than Coutinho ever would have had he hung around.
None of this is to say Coutinho is a lost cause to be avoided at all costs. While Liverpool had no room for one designated creator, Bayern had Muller and Barcelona had the immovable Lionel Messi, the Brazilian could still improve a team who are prepared to build around him.
Arsenal can take encouragement from this; so desperate are they for consistent creativity from deep that they could feasibly gear their system towards getting the best out of Coutinho without suffering from the shortfall.
We saw Brendan Rodgers do this to devastating effect in the 2013/14 season. Statistically, he had a fairly average individual season – five goals and eight assists on paper doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping – but with Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson regularly taking up deeper positions to compensate, the Brazilian really found his rhythm roaming the space behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
Now 28, it’s abundantly clear that Coutinho will never be anything other than a high-maintenance player, one who requires massive tactical allowances to justify his inclusion. His spell at Bayern proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt, and this – coupled with the insane finances involved in any potential deal – acts as a scarecrow for potential suitors.
Whoever does sign him will be taking a chance – but if they are prepared to take lessons from his career so far, and sacrifice the creativity and freedom of other players to deploy him as the man, then it may just be a chance worth taking.
If not, then there’s always a move to China. Oscar’s done alright out there, after all.