Sunday, in an entertaining, albeit scoreless battle between the current top two sides in Germany, Bayern Munich tied RB Leipzig at Allianz Arena. It was the first time this season anyone had kept Bayern from scoring in the league. That's not an easy thing to do considering Bayern possesses the second-best scoring record in the Bundesliga (58) and had accumulated 16 goals in its previous four matches in all competitions since the end of the winter break.
“I can live with tonight's result,” manager Hansi Flick said after the game. “It was a fair score line. I think both teams were pleased to keep a clean sheet and take a point."
Flick’s comments are proof that the 29-time league champion is taking everything in stride. Sure, a victory would have been better, but there is no panic button, and while this title race is proving to be filled with more uncertainty than usual, Bayern carries itself as a more confident and more assured side than it has all season.
In many ways, that sentiment mirrors that of Philippe Coutinho, who found his way to Bayern on loan from Barcelona this past summer, following a winding road through some of Europe's top teams.
“I haven’t been here long, so it takes time to adapt to a new culture, but my family is happy and I’m happy,” said Coutinho, the 27-year-old Brazilian international for whom Germany is his fourth European destination after playing in Italy (Inter), England (Liverpool) and Spain (Espanyol, Barcelona).
The transition to German life was made easier thanks to his teammate and close friend, Thiago Alcantara.
“He helps me a lot," Coutinho said, speaking to SI.com in Spanish. "Aside from being a great player, he’s simply a great human being.”
Through Coutinho's lens, things feel like they're heading in the right direction, both on a personal and team level, no matter if his current playing time isn't what he might desire. He smiles throughout this whole conversation and seems relaxed and happy in Germany, especially with Bayern finding its form.
“We had a slow start, but now we’re at a good place,” Coutinho said. “This is a complicated league, difficult with many teams fighting for the top, but we’re doing well. We’re eager to win it for the fans and to continue like this. We have to take it match by match and step by step.”
For a player who is still looking to solidify his place in Bayern’s starting XI since Flick took over, Coutinho seems surprisingly upbeat. Due to Flick’s tactical changes, coupled with Ivan Perisic’s arrival and Leon Goretzka beginning to live up to the hype, Coutinho–who arrived last August from Barcelona on a season-long loan with an option to buy–essentially lost his starting role since Kovac’s departure.
Now, pundits and fans alike question whether Bayern will take that option and bring him on a permanent deal once the season is over. The most recent reports around Europe suggest Bayern won't and that a full transfer from his parent club back to the Premier League could be on the table. According to the terms of Bayern's agreement with Barcelona, the option to buy is set at 120 million euros ($131 million).
Something that isn’t in doubt, however, is the fact that he’s an extremely talented attacking midfielder, and, in fairness, not being an automatic starter–he's appeared in 19 of Bayern's 21 Bundesliga matches, starting 12–has not been all Coutinho’s fault. He remains a true playmaker, someone who loves to create, and in Flick’s physical, aggressive system, the No. 10 role is less about the individual. It’s shared. And unlike his role with Tite’s Brazil, where he has become instrumental, this doesn’t always suit Bayern’s needs. It might also be, in fact, the reason why it didn’t work with Barcelona.
But Coutinho isn’t worried. He’s confident of his skillset and what he can offer a team, and sooner or later, especially as Bayern’s schedule intensifies with the return of the Champions League, he could earn back his starting role. When asked about it, he seems unnerved. In fact, instead of talking about his role, he’s more interested in appreciating just how much Flick has done since taking over.
“He [Flick] is working so hard, and thanks to him the team is playing well and that’s what’s most important," Coutinho said. "It can’t be easy to manage a team like Bayern Munich, and I think he came in and has been doing a great job."
The more Coutinho speaks, the more something becomes abundantly clear about who he is: he's a glass-half-full person, and just like his hero, Ronaldinho, he’s an eternal optimist.
On his arm, a tattoo shows the words “Never stop dreaming.” He had it done during his time with Liverpool.
“I believe you should never stop dreaming, and you have to work hard to make the dream come true,” he told the Daily Telegraph months after getting it in 2013. “I see it as a stairway, really. To play good football then play for a good team and then achieve the level where you are invited to play for the Seleção–and then have a good World Cup.”
Fast forward to the present since those comments, and Coutinho can feel good about his achievements so far. They include multiple individual awards with Liverpool (fans' player of the season, players’ player of the season), a Coppa Italia with Inter Milan and four trophies with Barcelona, including two league titles. For the national team, he has become a valuable asset for Tite, and an argument could be made that recently he’s been Brazil’s most important player on the biggest stages. He was arguably Brazil’s best player in Russia at the 2018 World Cup, and in Neymar’s absence, he–alongside Dani Alves–was the team’s driving force during last summer’s Copa America victory on home soil.
Now in Germany, Coutinho sees a very strong league, filled with subtle talent and physicality.
“In the last few months, I have realized more that the Bundesliga is a very balanced league, everyone wants to win–it’s hard to win here," Coutinho said. "It’s ... similar to [the] Premier League in the sense that it’s intense and physical. There’s no time to think. It’s fast, hard on the pitch–much like in England. But it’s also technically good with an intense desire to play the game.”
It’s this exact reason, Coutinho says, why the German game benefits young Brazilian players such as Hertha Berlin's Matheus Cunha or Bayer Leverkusen’s Paulinho. The Bundesliga offers them the tools required for Tite’s system, and if they’re ever called up, whether it’s for a World Cup qualifier or a major tournament, then their experience in Germany will have them better prepared.
“There’s a great thing going on right now with young players playing in great leagues and they’re in the limelight," Coutinho said. "Brazilian talent is growing, it’s dynamic. And this is good for the squad, because this is a very important year for Brazil. There are many players with experience but also a tremendous number of young players that can contribute and this gives us all a lot of confidence as we head into qualifiers and another Copa America.”
Coutinho looks to restore his own confidence at Bayern Munich, where he has a league title to defend and a forthcoming date vs. Chelsea in the Champions League, which will facilitate a return to England in the first leg in two weeks. When asked if he thinks Bayern can win the tournament for the first time since 2013, Coutinho just leans back on his chair and smiles.
“Of course, we believe we can win it all. We work so hard for it," he said. "Just like you work for success at what you do, we equally work so hard. These are the best teams in the world after all, and the Champions League is very hard, but if you work hard, then anything can happen.”
It’s impossible to talk about Coutinho without addressing his tenure with the current Champions League holder, Liverpool, where he spent six formative years. During his time on Merseyside, he scored 54 total goals in 201 matches and became the highest scoring Brazilian in the league (41 goals) until the end of 2018, when his friend Roberto Firmino passed him in a 5-1 victory against Arsenal.
In the Liverpool dressing room, Coutinho was nicknamed “The Magician” due to his ability to make something out of nothing. Aside from that, Coutinho became very close with the club, the staff and his teammates. Leaving for Barcelona was harder on him than most fans think. So, when he looks at Jurgen Klopp’s current, unstoppable squad that is closing in on a long-awaited Premier League title–a season after winning the Champions League–it would be natural to have some regrets over leaving. That's not part of the Coutinho mindset, though.
“Liverpool is flying, and it doesn’t surprise me. We’ve seen it already last year when it won the Champions League, but I’m also not surprised because of their fantastic squad and manager,” he said. “I am so happy for them, because I have so many friends there, former teammates–so I’m just so happy for them–but that’s all. I don’t look back. I took another path, and now I am on another journey, much like everyone else. I’m focused entirely–just like them–on reaching my dreams. I’m happy with what I did in the past, and now I can only look forward.”
"Reaching my dreams." Just like the sentiment he carries, quite literally, on his arm.