There is something strangely appropriate about the fact that Philippe Coutinho will miss the first three weeks after making a roughly $200 million move to Barcelona with a thigh injury. The nature of his move, leaving Liverpool in January, means this first half-season is something of a non-event, a period of phony war in which he can get to know his teammates before the real business begins next season.
After all, Coutinho will be cup-tied for the Champions League and with Barcelona nine points clear at the top of La Liga and 16 ahead of Real Madrid (having played a game more), the league title is already all but won. Coutinho could score 20 goals in the second half of the season and set up 20 more and nobody would feel he had in any sense been a decisive presence.
In itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when Liverpool was in its 1970s heyday, that was how it preferred to sign players, bringing them and then giving them six months to get used to their style of play before including them regularly in the first team. In the impatient world of modern football, of course, such a bedding-in process is impossible, but it should help Coutinho adapt to a notoriously idiosyncratic environment if he has a number of pressure-free games in which to get used to surroundings and the Barcelona style. It does, though, raise the question of why was this transfer done now?
From Liverpool’s point of view, the reasons seem fairly clear. It sits 18 points behind league-leading Manchester City. It is not going to win the Premier League title this season. Selling Coutinho has probably diminished its chances of winning the Champions League, but they were slight anyway. It has scored 50 league goals this season, more than anybody other than City, and it set a new English record for goals scored in the Champions League group stage with 23 in six games. The front end of the team is not the problem.
Coutinho had made clear in the summer than he wanted to leave, and although there has been no sign of a lack of commitment–at least once he returned to fitness following a back injury of whose veracity many were skeptical–there is only so long a player can be kept happy if his heart is elsewhere. Liverpool has no like-for-like replacement for the Brazilian, but it does have a host of other attacking options, plus Naby Keita will arrive from RB Leipzig in the summer. There's also the return from injury of Adam Lallana, who, at least in terms of position, is probably the closest Liverpool has to Coutinho.
Losing Coutinho will weaken Liverpool, clearly, but Jurgen Klopp appears to have reasoned that it makes sense to take the money now and reinvest it, addressing the glaring problems at the back of the team. Half the money has already been spent, retroactively anyhow, on Virgil van Dijk, which fills one of three glaring issues. Two others remain: there are still needs for a new goalkeeper and a proper holding midfielder. This is not meant as a slight on Jordan Henderson but he, surely, would be better suited to one of the two slightly more advanced central midfield roles, where his energy and capacity to make late runs into the box can be utilized, while somebody of more tactical intelligence can take on the deeper role.
It’s less obvious why Barcelona wanted to act now other than, perhaps, to relieve some of the pressure on the aging limbs of the 33-year-old Andres Iniesta to keep him fresh for the Champions League. That, of course, is assuming the plan is to stick with a basic 4-3-3, in which Coutinho could be used either as the most advanced of the midfielders or in a wide-left attacking role. Barcelona has at times recently dabbled with a 4-4-2. Perhaps Coutinho could operate narrow on the left side of that–his flexibility is part of his appeal–but it seems more probable that will be reserved for specific circumstances.
In the summer, Barcelona’s technical director Albert Soler, reacting to criticism that Barcelona had not reinvested the money it had received for Neymar, said that it could have spent €270 million on two players, implying that to do so would be a mistake when wider rebuilding was possible. As it turns out, with Coutinho now joining Ousmane Dembele, that is effectively what the club has done.
The fees are huge, but Barcelona may now think it’s come out of the last six months fairly well. Neymar had been the plan for a post-Messi future, but he and around $80 million have now been exchanged for two high-quality players. Neither is as good as Neymar yet, but then neither has anything like the baggage that comes along with him. With Luis Suarez also showing signs of age, certainly in the early part of the season, to have Dembele and Coutinho in this bedding-in period could prove extremely useful.
Slowly, and by reacting to events rather than by any grand plan, a new Barcelona is beginning to take shape.