Philippe Coutinho’s moments of brilliance became more fleeting. The lightning in the bottle stayed within its glass more often and, in the end, the bottle disappeared out to sea and drifted onto Qatari shores.
Coutinho remains the third-most expensive signing in football’s history behind Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but the glow and pre-existing excellence he had when turning up at Barcelona has steadily eeked out. It may only prove to be a season-long loan, but he leaves Aston Villa wearied and deteriorated, broken in parts physically and a shadow of the force from five years ago.
Among Villa’s highest earners at £135,00 ($169,000) per week, his departure helps manage financial fair play regulations and, in time, allows Unai Emery to continue building the squad in his image.
It spoke volumes that Emery, the head coach who has engendered an improvement in most since his arrival, was willing to part with Coutinho so comfortably. Even in a squad enriched with attacking quality but light, especially following Emiliano Buendia’s long-term injury, he was deemed expendable.
Despite only turning 31 in June, Coutinho carried the guise of an ageing pop star increasingly unable to hit the right notes on his greatest hits. He will be well-remunerated at Al Duhail but there had been interest from clubs in Turkey — ultimately put off by the Brazillian’s excessive salary — and from Saudi Arabia, but tellingly there were few attractive top-level suitors, just like when he moved to the Midlands.
When Villa signed him on a permanent deal worth £17million in the summer of 2022, the overarching tone of then-manager Steven Gerrard centred on the sense Coutinho had more to give. He was given a four-year contract at the age of 29.
By this point, Coutinho had been at Villa for six months on loan. Gradually, he had begun rebuilding after failure at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
He scored five goals and assisted three times in 19 Premier League appearances managing, just, to retain his place in the Brazil team. The mood around Coutinho was optimistic — genially demonstrated when Gerrard joked his former Liverpool team-mate had swapped Barcelona for Birmingham due to his “banter and company”.
“He needs to feel wanted, to feel support,” said Gerrard. “Everyone at Villa is playing their part… the owners especially have made him feel really special. He feels really happy here and it’s fantastic that he wants to be part of this journey.
“He’s still got loads left in him. To have him here full-time and settled, he’ll come again and go up another level because of that feeling of knowing where he’s going to be playing for the next four years.”
At first, Coutinho’s impact could be measured by his presence alone. His signing represented a marquee addition and was a touchstone, the moment Villa’s ‘project’ went all in for European football. Coutinho influenced countryman Diego Carlos and then Boubacar Kamara opting to join that same summer, as well as Douglas Luiz commitment to a contract extension.
It is no secret Villa could not have secured Coutinho without Gerrard. In the boardroom, though, owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens loved his profile and the publicity it gave the club. Former chief executive Christian Purslow announced the signing at an end-of-season awards night, saving the big moment for the occasion.
Gerrard was sacked five months later and the midfielder’s form was reflective of Villa’s general state. He did, and still does, thrive in certain circumstances, such as in training and in the small-sided games that bring out his ball manipulation and technical abilities. Team-mates still find themselves impressed by what Coutinho is capable of doing.
Physically, however, there has been the feeling his body has broken down and cannot last a full match. Coutinho scored just once more in 22 appearances and failed to add to his tally of assists. He started a solitary Premier League game for Emery and never played 90 minutes under him.
The physical and tactical requirements the head coach puts on his No 10s are demanding and have emphasised Coutinho can no longer compete regularly. Those in the position have to know when and how to counter-press effectively and make short sharp sprints inside the pitch upon turnovers, enabling Emery to change shape.
Doubts started to creep into the manager’s mind as early as January when Coutinho was a part of that humiliating 2-1 defeat to Stevenage in the FA Cup. He did not play a single minute after sustaining another injury in the 4-2 defeat to Arsenal on February 18.
Up until the past 18 months, injury was not always the prevalent concern (Coutinho averaged 33 games per season over the previous five years). However, his creative output incrementally declined year on year.
The varying and frequent spells on the sidelines have impeded progress. At Barcelona, Coutinho suffered six different injuries in three full seasons (he spent the other year at Bayern), with his form and fitness from Liverpool deserting him. Most acutely, he sustained a significant injury to his left knee in August 2022, rupturing his outer meniscus and keeping him out for eight months. It served as the beginning of the end for Coutinho performing at the top level.
He missed 17 games last season due to a muscular problem and an all-too-familiar hamstring injury, the fifth of his career, which reoccurred in the second game of this season against Everton. The final look at Coutinho in a Villa shirt — a slow walk around the side of the pitch, arms around both physio’s shoulders and hobbling — was a sad illustration of his physical frailties being exposed again.
Even if there were signs in pre-season that Coutinho could provide Emery with an option off the bench, it was not enough to justify the outlay on him.
The parting of ways between Coutinho and Villa may only come in the form of a temporary agreement, but it would be surprising if the relationship is rekindled. A split was necessary — even for a guy who is one of the most liked and respected at the club — and preferable for all parties, with no acrimony but rather acceptance.
(Top photo: Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)