Illustration by Red Star Liverpool. Find more of his great work here
Modern football has created a purgatory. A place where players that fail to live up to their initial hype are consigned to. The lines between star and potential star are becoming increasingly blurred, meaning fans and clubs alike are impatient. They demand an instant impact and if you don’t deliver it’s a missed opportunity for the player, not the club. One player on the verge of escaping his personal limbo is Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho.
Philippe Coutinho Correia, the third, and youngest, son of José Carlos, was born on June 12, 1992, in Rio de Janiero and raised in the district of Rocha. A collection of small industrial warehouses was his humble childhood home.
It was in this area that the future Brazil international learnt his craft. The concrete football pitch close by was his canvas and his elder brothers his inspiration; he would go on to express himself in that concrete jungle.
Futsal was his game of choice and it wasn’t long before Philippe was getting the better of his elder brothers, Cristiano and Leandro. It also wasn’t long before clubs started taking note and he was asked to attend a trial for Vasco da Gama. It’s hard to imagine it now – the Liverpool number 10 often makes himself at home in some of England’s biggest stadiums – but on his first day he wouldn’t leave his father’s side and cried due to extreme shyness.
Recalling his futsal years, Coutinho said: “I played futsal from the age of six. Then when I was seven I went to Vasco da Gama, I was playing futsal until I was 11 before I moved to the big pitch. This is where I learned my skills. When you play futsal, it is more technical and much quicker. The place where you play is much smaller and the pace quicker so you need to be a highly technical player to succeed. It helps me adapt quicker.”
The futsal videos of a young Coutinho – ‘Philippinho’ as he was called back then – can be found on YouTube, with the curly haired maestro still using the same tricks when he plays now as he did back then. He’s a contortionist with the ball at his feet and a joy to watch. The twinkle in his eye and the cheeky smile he flashes after scoring is something Liverpool fans have become accustomed to.
Coming through the youth ranks at Vasco he often crossed paths with another Brazilian starlet, Neymar. At the time the talk was about which of these two talented youngsters would be the best. The were likened to Robinho and Diego, two players that had some years earlier come through the ranks at Santos. Coutinho’s Vasco defeated Neymar’s Santos in the under-17 Copa do Brasil in 2008 and his star was on rapid ascent.
Unsurprisingly with a profound South American talent, a move to Europe was just around the corner. Many clubs showed an interest but it was Italian side Inter Milan who took the calculated risk and paid Vasco da Gama €4 million for the services of Brazil’s next big thing.
After just a few training sessions with Inter, manager at the time Rafa Benítez declared Coutinho would be “the club’s future”. Many will be familiar with the Inter-Tottenham Hotspur 4-3 match, it’s forever associated with Gareth Bale announcing himself to the world, but it was Inter Milan’s number 29 who impressed the football purists. The diminutive Brazilian played a part in two of the four Inter goals while playing on the left of a 4-2-3-1. A bright start at Inter soon faded, however; a mixture of injuries and the sacking of Benítez meant Coutinho finished the season out of the team.
After failing to establish himself in the first half of 2011-12, Inter allowed Coutinho to be loaned to Spanish side Espanyol, who at the time had future Southampton and Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino at the helm. The loan deal was the revival Coutinho’s stagnating career needed.
A return of five goals in 16 appearances – and one of the goals of the season against Rayo Vallecano – led to Espanyol wanting to extend the loan but Inter were convinced of his quality once again and welcomed him back with open arms. Diego Milito, Inter’s leading marksman at the time, commented how “[Coutinho’s] time in Spain changed him for the better”. First team football will do that to a player. The first half of the next season he made 19 appearances for the side, just one shy of the total number he made in the entirety of 2010-11.
In a bizarre twist he was sold to Liverpool in January 2013 for £8 million – many Nerazzurri fans questioning the wisdom of letting their best young talent leave on the cheap. The fee was too tempting, however, for the Inter Milan owners, who had grown tired of waiting to reap their rewards.
Later, Inter Milan director Piero Ausilio noted his regret at letting Coutinho leave: “He was just 18 when he arrived at the club from Vasco. Then came [Rafa] Benítez and the expectations were very high. Rafa had used him on the flanks in a 4-2-3-1 formation but he was not playing much so we decided to sell him. I would like young players to grow and succeed here; when I see them play for other clubs, it makes me sad.”
Inter’s loss was Liverpool’s gain. The mercurial mop-headed number 10 made himself at home in the Liverpool line-up, hitting it off instantly with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. Originally playing on the left of a 4-2-3-1 – like he had at Inter – his partnership with the latter blossomed in the absence of the former and he was instrumental in Liverpool’s emphatic end to the 2012-13 season.
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The flourishing partnership between Coutinho and Firmino will be key for Liverpool and Brazil in the coming years
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He was tormenting players and tying defenders in knots like a certain Cristiano Ronaldo was doing in his debut season at United, with the difference being the Liverpool player had an end product from day one. He’s a gifted player that turns heads and has warmed rival fans to his undoubted quality. He made Héctor Bellerín do an impression of a dog chasing its own tail when Liverpool travelled to the Emirates in August 2015.
The following season was one of two halves for both club and player: inconsistent in the first half of the season and magical in the second. The nimble playmaker had his position tweaked; he was deployed as a left-sided central midfielder as part of a diamond and he evolved beyond measure – reaching heights many thought he wouldn’t after his stagnation at Inter.
The Brazilian attacking midfielder was now doing the dirty work in midfield against the likes of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho. Crucially, however, he was still contributing offensively. You often hear of the water carrier doing the dirty work before giving the ball to players capable of making things happen; Coutinho was a water carrier-playmaker hybrid at times during that season. A new breed of Brazilian, he’s just as creative and dynamic without the ball as he is with it.
He couldn’t sustain that form and as Liverpool struggled to cope with life after Luis Suárez, Coutinho blew hot and cold. The burden of expectation placed on the youngster’s shoulders saw some disappointed with what they witnessed, echoing his time in Milan. He no longer had Suárez or Sturridge to create for; instead he was supposed to be the creator and the finisher. A magician needs an assistant, otherwise the illusion is lost.
Liverpool recognised this and last summer they signed Roberto Firmino, a player to share the burden with. Coutinho is no longer the sole player Liverpool look to for a moment of inspiration. Firmino’s presence has allowed Coutinho a little more freedom to express himself. It’s paying dividends for the Reds under new manager Jürgen Klopp. The two Brazilians have played a big part in Liverpool’s positive start under the German.
While his club career is back on that upward trajectory, Brazil boss Dunga is bizarrely favouring Orlando City’s 33-year-old Kaká over the Liverpool star for the Seleção. Dunga has a peculiar way of picking players for the national side, despite his assurances that form is enough. “If a guy comes in and plays well, he will remain in the squad. They have to seize their opportunities.”
This is more of a club-style policy – it’s your jersey to lose type mentality – not one you often associate with international football. National sides often pick the form players, and before the last international break Coutinho had scored three goals in two games, two of which came in Liverpool’s emphatic 3-1 victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It must be difficult to accept for the Rio native.
Hyped as the next Brazilian star alongside Neymar he missed out on a call up to the squad in his home World Cup. Shunned by Dunga for now, surely it’s only a matter of time before he’s given the opportunity to rekindle his friendship with Neymar on the pitch. Perhaps the incessant criticism Dunga receives for his team selections within Brazil is partly aimed at his continual overlooking of one of the Premier League’s best playmakers.
It’s this kind of form, though, that could be bittersweet for the Reds. Liverpool want their players performing at optimal levels but as things stand Coutinho’s level is perhaps a notch or two above everyone else’s at Anfield. If the club can’t match his aspirations then he has every right to whisper ‘come and get me’ pleas to the biggest sides in Europe.
If he’s performing at high levels on a regular basis he could be the next player after Luis Suárez and Raheem Sterling to earn a big-money move away from Anfield, and it’s not like he’d be short of suitors. He’s the apparent heir to the Andrés Iniesta mantle, and Barcelona stars past and present aren’t shy in letting him know.
Neymar has been vocal in his support: “I think there are many players with great qualities that could be playing for Barcelona. He is one of them. He is a great player and his style suits Barcelona.”
Coutinho’s idol Ronaldinho has also expressed his opinion on the subject: “I can’t speak for him and I can’t speak for Barcelona – but I know what Barcelona look for in a player and he has all those qualities.”
It’s easy after one big move as a youngster to settle. The passion and drive that got them to Europe burns out when they eventually arrive and their talent goes to waste. Coutinho, to his eternal credit, isn’t like this though. He’s still the youngster who played futsal on the concrete pitch not far from his house. He’s still humble; during interviews when he’s complimented he always makes a point of saying he can improve. He takes to social media to reply to individual messages and thank fans for their support. Liverpool supporters love him, and he reciprocates when he can. He’s immersed himself into the Scouse culture, even adding ‘lad’ to the end of his tweets.
It’s easy to forget he’s only 23 and is still learning his trade. The next few seasons are pivotal in his development as we finally see what type of player he will become – a number 8 or a number 10. Can his goals become more frequent or will he forever be a scorer of great goals but not a great goalscorer? Either way, the next two years are pivotal in the career of Philippe Coutinho.
A regular Seleção birth and leading Liverpool to Premier League glory will be his aims: how well he plays will ultimately be the determining factor in both.
By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90