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European Football Weekend Round-Up & Power Rankings By Zach Lowy

Each Monday, I’ll be writing a weekly round-up on this season’s action at BET Central, including the managers on the hot seat and the coaches who are delivering the goods for their clubs, the young prospects who are putting themselves in the spotlight, and the players and teams who are making the headlines or flying under the radar in the 2021/22 season.

European Football Round-Up

“Perhaps Messi and him were never going to work. Perhaps he’d have performed better in a different system under a different manager. But Coutinho shares the majority of responsibility for why his dream move to Barcelona fell apart. A club hero at Liverpool turned into a punchline; a record signing at Barcelona turned into an unforgivable waste of money.”

Coutinho’s €160 Million Move to Barcelona

It’s been two years since I put Philippe Coutinho on my five worst deals of the decade for BET Central, and it’s fair to say that not too much has changed. During his five-year spell at Liverpool, Coutinho had emerged as one of the finest players in the Premier League, earning interest from Barcelona. After a failed summer move in 2017, Coutinho faked a back injury and paid €10 million of his own money just to get the €160 million move across the line – today, the deal remains the third-most-expensive transfer of all time behind Neymar and Kylian Mbappé’s moves to Paris Saint-Germain.

It seems that their world-record haul from Neymar’s shocking move to PSG gave Barcelona an undeserved sense of financial invincibility in the transfer market, and the years that followed would see Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong arrive for mouth-watering sums. None of them have managed to justify their price tag – with Ousmane set to depart the club on a free transfer this summer, Griezmann returning to Atlético this prior summer, and De Jong’s performances being eclipsed by teenage talents Gavi and Pedri. Perhaps no transfer, though, has been more damaging than Coutinho; not only has the Brazilian failed to muster a consistent run of performances for the Blaugrana or justify his annual salary of €20 million, but he also gave Liverpool some much-needed financial power.

Liverpool Gain Much-Needed Financial Power

With the money received from Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona in January 2018, Liverpool were able to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in the same window, as well as Alisson from Roma and Fabinho from Monaco just months later. These three played a crucial role as Liverpool knocked out Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semifinals the following season, before defeating Tottenham Hotspur in the Final in Madrid, and they continued their impressive form in 2019/20 to lead Liverpool to their first-ever Premier League title. Barcelona, meanwhile, decided to offload Coutinho after just one-and-a-half seasons, with Bayern Munich paying a fee of €8.5 million to sign him on loan for the 2019/20 season, whilst also maintaining a €120 million option to sign him on a permanent deal.

Bayern Munich Sign Coutinho on Loan

The Brazilian enjoyed a decent return for the Bavarian side, racking up a total of 11 goals and 9 assists in 38 appearances, but his inability to solidify a starting spot and an ankle injury that kept him out of the Bundesliga’s restart following the COVID-19 break meant that Bayern did not take up their purchase option. Nevertheless, Coutinho left a lasting impression as Bayern went on to win the treble under Hansi Flick, his most impressive performance coming in the Champions League quarterfinal in Lisbon; within 15 minutes of coming on as a substitute against Barcelona, Coutinho scored a brace and an assist to secure an 8-2 triumph for Bayern.

His Return to Barça

Coutinho’s return to Barcelona came with renewed optimism under new manager Ronald Koeman, providing assists in Barça’s first two league matches – a 4-0 win against Villarreal and a 3-0 win against Celta Vigo – before scoring an equalizer in a 1-1 draw against Sevilla to cancel out future Barcelona signing Luuk de Jong’s opening goal. However, after a run of games that saw Barcelona lose to Getafe and Real Madrid and beat Ferencváros thanks to a goal from Coutinho, the Vasco de Gama academy product missed a month of action due to a hamstring injury. He made his return on November 21, 2020 in a 0-1 loss to eventual champions Atlético Madrid, before finding the back of the net a week later in a 4-0 win against Osasuna, but he nevertheless struggled to replicate his form over the following month. After coming on as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against Eibar on December 29, Coutinho ruptured his external meniscus, an injury that would keep him out for the next nine months, a period that would see Barcelona crash out of the Champions League at the Round of 16, lose the league title to a Luis Suárez-backed Atlético, and, perhaps most damningly, lose Lionel Messi on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain after being unable to afford to renew the Argentine superstar’s contract.

Once again, Coutinho was unable to showcase consistency both under Koeman or Xavi, scoring just three goals across 630 minutes of football in the 2021/22 season. It’s why, desperate to shed some weight off their crippling wage bill, Barcelona elected to offload Coutinho on a six-month loan to Aston Villa, with the Villans maintaining an option to make the deal permanent for £33 million. Nearly a decade after playing alongside him in Liverpool’s midfield, Coutinho would now be playing under the management of Steven Gerrard.

Immediate Impact

Gerrard, having replaced Dean Smith as Villa manager during the November international break, has already shown similarities with his Rangers team that ended Celtic’s domestic dynasty and claimed the Scottish Premiership title last year. Implementing a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3, Gerrard kicked off his first spell as a Premier League manager with back-to-back victories against Brighton and Crystal Palace, a 2-1 loss to league leaders Manchester City, a win against Leicester City, and a hard-fought 1-0 defeat to Liverpool. His second month in charge was less fruitful – after defeating relegation favorites Norwich City, Villa lost to Chelsea, Brentford, and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the Third Round by an early goal from Manchester United’s Scott McTominay.

It forced Villa’s hand in the transfer window, with the club signing Lucas Digne for £25 million on a contract through 2026 after the French left back came to blows with Everton manager Rafa Benítez, as well as bringing in Coutinho on loan from Barcelona. Anwar El Ghazi, Wesley Moraes and Keinan Davis were loaned out to make way for Coutinho, who, despite agreeing to a hefty wage cut in order to join Villa, has made a sizable dent in Villa’s wage packet to the tune of £125,000 a week.

Whilst Digne started at left back in Saturday’s league match against Manchester United, his ex Barcelona teammate began the match on the bench. The Red Devils took the lead within six minutes, as Emiliano Martínez spilled a tepid shot from Bruno Fernandes and parried it into his own net. United continued to pin Villa back and push for a second goal, with a header from Swedish youngster Anthony Elanga coming close to beating Martínez at his near post, a long shot from Mason Greenwood sailing just wide, an in general, a flurry of shots from United’s attackers in the first half-hour keeping the Argentine keeper a busy man. 

Villa managed to put David De Gea under pressure in what proved to be a thirty-minute period of end-to-end action, but they were unable to find an equalizer before Morgan Sanson, under pressure from Diogo Dalot, coughed up possession with an errant back pass. Fred picked up a loose ball, exploiting Tyrone Mings’ poor anticipation, and dished it off to Bruno Fernandes, whose shot careened off the top post and into the back of the net.

Desperate for an instant reaction, Gerrard subbed off Sanson for Coutinho in the 68th minute, before putting on 18-year-old midfielder Carney Chukwuemeka for summer arrival Danny Ings. These two combined to make a sizable impact just seconds later – after picking up a pass from Mings in the left half-space, Coutinho began a run infield, grabbing the attention of Greenwood and Nemanja Matić, before dishing it off to a wide open Chukwuemeka. The teenager took a touch to control it before sending it back to Coutinho, who directed it towards an open Jacob Ramsey in the middle of the box, who took a touch before firing it into the bottom right corner with his left foot. It was a cathartic goal that prompted roaring cheers of approval from the Villa Park faithful, a goal created by two academy products and a fallen superstar.

Four minutes later, Emiliano Buendía threaded a pass towards Ollie Watkins, who timed his cross to perfection. His ball sailed across the box, past the reach of the outstretched Raphaël Varane and into the path of Coutinho, who tapped home the equalizer past David De Gea. Coutinho, who had twisted his way past Guillermo Varela before beating De Gea at his near post as Liverpool eliminated United from the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League Round of 16, Coutinho, who had curled a long shot past De Gea to send Barcelona past United in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League Round of 16, had once again brought the Red Devils and its Spanish goalkeeper to their knees.

Villa’s Upcoming Fixtures

After their comeback draw against United, Villa now have the chance to mount an impressive run of form in the league. They travel to Goodison Park on Saturday to face off against a 16th-placed Everton side that have just sacked manager Rafa Benítez, before taking on Leeds United (15), Newcastle (19) and Watford (17) over the next month. With a midfield featuring the likes of John McGinn, Marvelous Nakamba, Jacob Ramsey, and Douglas Luiz, and an attack boasting the likes of Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Buendía, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings, Coutinho certainly won’t be guaranteed a starting spot, but he has nevertheless proven that he can be a world-class performer in the Premier League. With his contract set to expire in 2023, Barcelona will be hoping to recoup a fee of £33 million in what will be their final summer to squeeze any financial value whatsoever from the 29-year-old, whilst Coutinho will be looking to win a starting spot, enjoy regular football ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and earn his first recall to the Brazil national team since October 2020. Villa, meanwhile, will be looking to get the most out of a player who, on his day, is a transformational game-changer at the elite level.

“I watched videos of the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, and all these playmakers, you know, around the world, like (Philippe) Coutinho – clips of him from him when he was at Liverpool. I’ve worked on my final ball. I always watch clips of Coutinho from Liverpool – it was always the final pass that was perfect and that’s what I’ve tried to work on this season.”

Those were the words of Jack Grealish in a 2021 interview with BT Sport. With Grealish struggling to replicate his sensational form following his £100 million move to Manchester City, and with Villa struggling to cope with the sale of their former captain to Pep Guardiola’s side, Coutinho will be hoping to make Villa fans forget about Grealish and emerge as the club’s creative talisman as they look to return to Europe for the first team in over a decade.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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