Aston Villa take calculated risk with Coutinho as Gerrard aims to rekindle past magic

Brazilian midfielder was an extraordinary player for Liverpool but has seen his career stall since joining Barcelona

New loan signing Philippe Coutinho poses with an Aston Villa shirt. Getty

The last time Philippe Coutinho faced Manchester United, he offered an illustration of why he became the second most expensive footballer in history.

It was the 2019 Champions League quarter-finals. Barcelona kicked off at the Camp Nou with a deficit. Coutinho’s classy curler from some 25 yards completed the comeback. He and Lionel Messi were twinned on the scoresheet. It was Barcelona’s vision on the pitch, long before it was apparent their ambitions were unaffordable.

A few weeks later, Coutinho returned to Anfield. Barcelona arrived with a 3-0 lead, which was wiped out. Coutinho was booed when hauled off after an hour. Liverpool’s extraordinary 4-0 victory took them to the final.

The Catalan newspaper Sport gave him 0 out of 10 in their player ratings. “Invisible,” was their verdict. Not since Pete Best quit the Beatles, it seemed, had anyone made a worse decision to leave a Liverpool outfit who went on to become all-conquering.

As he prepares to make a second Premier League debut against United on Saturday, it is with the question of which Coutinho Aston Villa have borrowed: the £142 million ($195m) man, the player Steven Gerrard branded “a magician” last week and “a dream to play alongside” in his autobiography, the king of the long-range goal, the player with an extraordinary ability to conjure something out of nothing?

Or the player whose fortunes have nosedived to an alarming degree, the unwanted emblem of financial mismanagement who was benched for kids this season and on offer to virtually anyone, the byword for Barcelona’s costly transfer-market failures who almost bankrupted the club?

A player who is only three days older than Mohamed Salah can seem yesterday’s man, a throwback to another era; yet one whose brilliance owed far more to technique than physicality should not be in irreversible decline.

Gerrard could be forgiven for being nostalgic, for thinking back to happier times. His last game alongside Coutinho was the infamous 6-1 defeat to Stoke in 2015 but they helped power Liverpool’s inspired surge towards the title in 2014. Coutinho peaked after that. In two seasons from the summer of 2016, three-quarters of it for Liverpool, he got 28 goals and 18 assists in league games alone. He was an extraordinary footballer.

Steven Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho as Liverpool teammates in 2014. Reuters

The same may be said of James Rodriguez, and there are comparisons with Colombian’s move to Everton last season, offering perhaps the most high-profile signing in decades for historic giants who had become an ambitious mid-table outfit but taking a big earner that Spain’s dominant duo no longer wanted.

Rodriguez offered moments of magic, sometimes with Coutinho-esque goals from distance, but ultimately flattered to deceive, given his huge wages.

Villa can look at Coutinho’s list of past employers — Inter Milan, Liverpool, Barcelona, Bayern Munich — and see fellow former European Cup winners. They may also wonder if a player who used to get a disproportionate share of his goals against the Premier League superpowers can secure flagship wins to catapult them up the table.

Manchester United 0 Aston Villa 1: player ratings

Certainly, Gerrard’s demanding nature has been reflected both in his words and his dealings so far. Matt Targett was voted Villa’s Players’ Player of the Year last season.

Signing Lucas Digne, in a £25m deal from Everton, felt an expensive upgrade. Gerrard is reshaping his left flank. His narrow, Christmas tree formation needs attacking full-backs. It offers scope for Coutinho to tuck in as a left-sided No 10. It should be role that suits him.

Yet the tactical aspects may initially be outweighed by the sense of excitement around Coutinho’s potential debut. Villa’s league win at Old Trafford in September was momentous. Because of Coutinho, even if the result is different, the rematch feels another significant occasion.

Updated: January 14th 2022, 8:22 AM