Finally … I guess?
After spending most of last summer trying to convince Liverpool to take a large chunk of the €222 million they got from Paris Saint-Germain for Neymar, Barcelona have finally signed 25-year-old Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho for a reported £142 million. The eventual Coutinho-to-Barcelona move seemed like the worst-kept secret in soccer—thanks, Nike!—but now it’s happening, six months earlier than expected, and the timing raises one particular question: Why now?
Barcelona is getting one of the best creative attacking players in the world, right as he hits his peak. What makes Coutinho uniquely valuable is his ability to play either as a tucked-in winger, a no. 10 behind the striker, or as a semi-traditional central midfielder. With a low-to-the ground, staccato playing style that’s all chops and subtle angles, he can produce like an elite attacker if he’s pushed high up the field, And when he drops into the midfield, he provides attacking production that basically no one outside of Manchester United’s Paul Pogba is able to offer from the same position. This year—on a per-90 basis and among players with at least 900 minutes played—Coutinho is fourth in the Premier League in shots, eighth in successful dribbles, fourth in chances created, and third in assists. No other player even comes close to ranking in the top 10 of all four categories.
Coutinho has such a diverse and productive skill set that—no matter the system—he would make any team better. That includes the best team in the world, which according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, is exactly what FC Barcelona is. Led by Lionel Messi’s 15 goals and six assists, Ernesto Valverde’s side is already 14 points ahead of Real Madrid, so they’ve essentially already wrapped up La Liga and get to focus the next six months on winning their first Champions League trophy since 2014-15, which just so happens to be the last time they bought Liverpool’s best player, then Luis Suárez. Except this time around, their marquee Merseyside arrival won’t even be able to play in the Champions League; Coutinho played 347 minutes for Liverpool in the group stages of the competition, and UEFA rules preclude any player from playing for multiple teams over the course of a season.
Barcelona is breaking the transfer record among clubs not funded by a sovereign-wealth fund in order to solidify a domestic title that’s already pretty close to being won. The Independent’s Miguel Delaney reported that Barcelona see Coutinho as Andrés Iniesta’s replacement, and while they’re not quite the same player—Coutinho shoots way more often, and Iniesta is one of the greatest passers of all time—the Brazilian fills the same dribble-heavy, ball-progressing, hybrid-midfield role that the Spanish legend has held for the past decade. Yet Barça reportedly sees the extra value in grabbing Coutinho now because he’ll be able to spell the 33-year-old Iniesta in the league while he plays in Europe … but Barça’s domestic lead is so big that they likely can afford a drop-off in quality from Iniesta to a lesser option currently on the roster and still coast to a La Liga title.
The other reason that Barça supposedly want to do the move now is that they’re afraid Coutinho’s value could rise even higher after the World Cup, where the global stage will often inflate or deflate transfer fees based on just a handful of good or bad games. Coutinho is an incredibly talented and productive player, but in terms of pure potential and starpower, he’s not Neymar, and he’s probably not even Kylian Mbappé, either.
The one hole in his game is his shot selection; he shoots a ton, but the average quality of his shots (0.07 expected goals per shot this season) falls way below average. Because of that, he’s probably right outside the top tier of non-Messi players. Over the summer, Football Whispers and ESPN FC rated him as the 14th-most-valuable player in the world—not the second-most-expensive player of all time.
Value, of course, almost never equals cost. The Neymar transfer may have been an outlier—remember: PSG more than doubled the world-record transfer fee—but, according to a source who helps various European clubs make investment decisions, it’s inflated the way that top clubs value their players on their balance sheets. If Liverpool can sell Coutinho for £142 million, then why wouldn’t, say, Chelsea value Eden Hazard at around the same price?
And yet, even though Delaney suggests that Barça has already spent the immediate profit from the Neymar deal on the €105 million deal for Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé and the new contract for Lionel Messi that runs through 2021, spending a further £142 million on Coutinho isn’t as wild as it might sound. Historically, top teams spend around 20 percent of their revenue on record signings, and Coutinho would come in right around that number.
Save for some exceptions, 20% is usually what clubs spend on their record signings, depending whether you look at previous season or existing season turnover pic.twitter.com/GzACpFkg6w— Omar Chaudhuri (@OmarChaudhuri) December 27, 2017
(An intriguing subplot: Another source, who advises clubs on transfers and managerial appointments, told to me that, come the fall, Barcelona and other top clubs may push UEFA to punish PSG for running afoul of Financial Fair Play regulations. However, Barcelona won’t be able to do that if their finances aren’t in line, so the club is likely being super-careful about what and how it spends.)
While all the reporting out of England since this past summer suggested that a move wouldn’t happen until next summer, that suddenly shifted. In the previous transfer window, Liverpool refused to sell, Coutinho didn’t play for a few weeks to start the season, and then he came back and performed as well as he ever has. It’s clear that Coutinho, who came to Liverpool from Inter Milan in 2013 on a (yes) €13 million deal, wanted to leave: Barcelona are just a bigger and better club, and even though he was the highest-paid player at Liverpool, he’ll make even more in Spain. But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp could’ve tried to hold firm again and hopefully see out the season with his star attacker in the squad. Something changed—maybe the money was too much to turn down, maybe the manager got fed up with the never-ending drama, maybe Liverpool have lined up replacements—and now the Reds have to rejigger a team that’s aiming for a top-four Premier League finish and a deep Champions League run on the fly.
Naby Keita is one of the best midfielders in the world—a clear Coutinho-as-midfielder replacement, and possibly even an upgrade—and he’s already locked in for next summer after Liverpool agreed to a fee with RB Leipzig last August. Plus, the emergence of Mohamed Salah, who’s not only been one of the best players on Liverpool but one of the best players on the planet, full stop, eases Coutinho’s exit in a way not even the biggest boosters of the Egyptian winger could’ve imagined when he arrived from Roma four months ago.
But it’s still a letdown for the club, as the quartet of Coutinho, Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané still haven’t met a defense they couldn’t turn into rubble. The team is currently in fourth in the Premier League, but the underlying metrics suggest that they’re even better: FiveThirtyEight rates them as not just the second-best team in England, but the best team in the world outside of Barça, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, PSG, Real Madrid, and Juventus. The team’s biggest weakness is a defense that concedes the third-fewest shots of any team in Europe but has somehow still allowed more goals than five teams in England. However, the club addressed that issue head on and just broke the world record for a defender in acquiring Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for £75 million. With the Dutch international in tow, the second half of the year promised something special.
Thanks to their ability to reinvest the money in multiple positions and with a front office that’s been close-to-perfect in player acquisition over the past few transfer windows, Liverpool might even be better off in the long term, but they won’t be getting any better this season. Somehow, you can say the same thing about Barcelona.