Philippe Coutinho left Anfield a superstar but returns with Barcelona a lost soul
Philippe Coutinho could be forgiven for taking a plaintive look around Anfield on his return Tuesday night -- even if, as looks probable, his Barcelona make it through to the final of the Champions League at the expense of his old club, Liverpool.
In the Portuguese of his native Brazil, there is an apt expression for the position in which Coutinho finds himself: "He was happy, and he didn't know it."
Sure, Coutinho was to some extent happy at Liverpool. So far, that is the club where he played the best football of his career, but he was not sufficiently happy to resist the chance to move to Barcelona.
Then again, how could a skillful Brazilian possibly refuse? For someone of his nationality and generation, there could be no destination so glamorous, and Barcelona wanted him!
This homage from Catalonia placed Coutinho in the tradition of Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar. He couldn't possibly have said no, but there must be times now when he wishes he had.
Coutinho has been facing two problems in his new surroundings. One has to do with his position, the other with his personality.
Barcelona's original idea was to import Coutinho as a replacement for Andres Iniesta, but there are two catches. One is that Iniesta is irreplaceable. The other is that Coutinho was not the ideal replacement. He is not and never has been a midfielder in the complete sense of the word. He is an attacking midfielder or support striker, a player whose best work comes in the final third of the field.
At last year's World Cup, Brazil switched him from the attacking three to the midfield trio, and it left the side dangerously unbalanced, with an alarming defensive vulnerability down the left side. The national team still seem confused about what to do with him.
Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde does not seem to share this confusion. He appears to have long since given up on Coutinho as an Iniesta substitute. Instead, the player has been competing with Ousmane Dembele for a place wide on the left of the attacking trio, at times retreating to become a fourth midfielder out on the flank.
Fitting Coutinho into the side, then, has proven to be a problem, and this in turn has proven difficult for the player's temperament.
The Camp Nou is a big stage for big stars. Coutinho, though, comes across as a timid character. A feature of his career has been that taking a step up has not usually been easy. He failed badly for Brazil at Under-17 level, and though he won the Under-20 World Cup, he was a supporting member of a cast spearheaded by Oscar.
It took him years to settle in the senior national side. It is also worth remembering that there is an explanation for the fact that Liverpool picked him up at a bargain-basement price: Inter Milan had effectively given up on him.
The Italian giants had a long-term relationship with Coutinho, signing him up well before he reached 18 and they could take him across the Atlantic. But after nearly three years in Europe, they cut their losses and let him go. He had not done enough to justify the investment, with the exception of the time he spent on loan at Espanyol under the skilled and watchful eye of Mauricio Pochettino.
It was at Liverpool that Coutinho found the atmosphere in which he could flourish. Brendan Rogers and then Jurgen Klopp showed him faith and warmth, and the player responded. He was free to attack, cutting in from wide on the left in his favoured position. A relatively inexpensive January signing exceeded all expectations, and the fans, of course, were delighted.
At Barcelona, it has been the opposite. The bar is higher, the burden of expectation is much heavier, and as we have seen, he has not been able to slot seamlessly into the side. He has frequently cut a downcast figure -- and the frustration rose to the surface last month, when he produced a magnificent moment against Manchester United, curling a wonderfully struck shot into the top corner.
It could have been -- and still might be -- a belated moment to launch his Barcelona career. But he made it hard for himself with his celebration, blocking out the cheers of the supporters and appearing to swear at them. It might have been a heat-of-the-moment reaction, but it was foolishly petulant. When a club has made such a massive investment in a marquee player, such moments of brilliance are not an added bonus.
Coutinho's reaction to his goal caused a media storm and left him open to accusations that he had disrespected the supporters. He has clearly not been forgiven, and in last week's 3-0 win over Liverpool, there were times when Coutinho was booed by the home crowd. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were not pleased, but the displeasure of Coutinho might well have been greater. He could have been forgiven for thinking that, a year and a half after leaving Liverpool, he really is walking alone.
As Coutinho takes in the scene at Anfield on Tuesday, part of him must surely be wishing that he were still in the home dressing room and striped in red.