You’ll be shocked to learn that a lot of soccer coverage, maybe even most, is results-driven. For instance, we were exactly 22 minutes away from another dispatch on the fragile Manchester United restoration project; Ralf Rangnick’s vulnerable, developing creation meekly pressing its head out of an awkward cocoon stage against lower-table opposition. They were winning 2-0 at Villa Park, and the second Bruno Fernandes goal, thumped in off the crossbar, felt like something wriggling free. But United still lack the ability of other big clubs to put the game out of sight, and Aston Villa are surprisingly resilient. Maybe even interesting. “2-0,” the Villa fans sang as United slinked off the pitch last weekend, “and you fucked it up!”
Fernandes said after the 2-2 draw that the floundering Red Devils had wasted a good away performance, but in truth, the home side were the better team for large parts of the game. United had been waiting and listening intently for the final whistle, just like in the reverse fixture in the FA Cup earlier in the week, in which United gasped to a 1-0 win. Soon after Fernandes banged in United’s second in the Premier League match, Villa manager Steven Gerrard subbed on the forgotten “little magician” Philippe Coutinho, and within 10 minutes, he had assisted the goal to spark Villa’s unlikely comeback and scored the tying goal himself. A dream debut if there ever was one.
Signing Coutinho on loan from Barcelona is an unusually exciting—and competent—bit of business for Villa. Generating a market for Jack Grealish and subsequently selling him to Manchester City for 100 million pounds didn’t necessarily mean Villa would spend their returns wisely. The likes of Adama Traoré, Idrissa Gueye, and Jordan Ayew didn’t work out in years past. And it wasn’t so long ago that mere interest from Villa during their failed attempt to stay up in the first division in 2016 prompted Nemanja Vidic to retire. They missed out on lucrative television money, and we all had a good laugh at their expense. But contrast that to United’s recent capitulation, where their midfield dissolved into just sort of a nice idea, and fans and reporters and pundits suggested they could really use an anchor to shore things up—an anchor like Villa’s John McGinn. Former Villa cult hero Gabby Agbonlahor advised that McGinn shouldn’t go, because Villa is a bigger draw than United now. Argentina no. 1 Emiliano Martinez appears to feel similarly, doubling down on his 2020 switch from “big six” club Arsenal with a three year contract extension to stay in Birmingham.
The club, however—especially if there’s anything behind those reports about Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard—might be becoming something of a landing spot for wayward professionals whose big-money moves didn’t work out or who have simply reached the end of a journey with their current teams. Sort of like how it’s going for Grealish at City right now (in fairness, it’s a hard knock life for a player in a team of all-stars that already had plenty of cover in the midfield). It began when Lucas Digne left Everton in the middle of the season—he had been languishing on the bench because manager Rafael Benítez either didn’t trust or like him. At Villa he can get playing time in the prime of his career—and unlike a player in the mold of Coutinho, who has something to prove after his Barcelona flop, Digne is still regarded as one of the better fullbacks in the Premier League. It may well be a coup for the Villans.
But signing a marauding wingback won’t necessarily improve a club’s fortunes—at least immediately—as you can learn from Newcastle. The Magpies announced their intention to return to big-club status by signing Kieran Trippier earlier this month. Since the club’s late 2021, Saudi-led takeover, Newcastle promised to throw money at the problem of potential relegation, and Atlético Madrid was the first club desperate enough to take it (it also helps that Trippier, while talented, has been out of form). His arrival swiftly demonstrated that a different, more dynamic form of soccer was possible, but the crosses Trippier whips in still need to land somewhere. Revamped Newcastle were summarily knocked out of the FA Cup in Trippier’s first game against Cambridge, a third-division side.
It’s early, but the Villans look like they could fare better with the services of Coutinho, who’s not just a “good” player in the vein of Trippier, but one of the best players in the world when he’s on it—if that’s still possible. Villa exploited an increasingly common phenomenon in modern soccer: As a player’s star rises, they’re affordable to fewer and fewer clubs, and so moving out of stale situations becomes increasingly noisy and impossible, due to excessive wages or transfer clauses or both. Barcelona have been trying to get rid of Coutinho for years now, despite making him the third-most-expensive transfer in history when he signed from Liverpool in 2018. Since then he’s had a rotating cast of managers, each either playing him in less-favored positions or picking their own signings in the first team over him—he had to angle for a 10- or an 8-spot in a team that also had Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and Ousmane Dembélé. His struggles always seemed like a result of mismanagement or bad timing, not commitment or skill—when he was loaned to Bayern Munich in the 2019 season he came on against Barcelona in the Champions League and scored the final brace in the infamous 8-2 drubbing that knocked the team that was signing his checks out of the competition. He held up his hand to apologize to the fans, and at the end of the season Munich sent him back.
After Coutinho scooped in the equalizer against Manchester United last weekend and was swarmed by teammates, seemingly venerated as an instant Villa hero, he pointed to the sky to thank God, with what looked like genuine relief on his face. “You can’t underestimate being happy going to work,” Gerrard said. And you can’t underestimate a Villa side that now has genuinely talented players doing it.