One day before the winter transfer window closes, Liverpool finalizes a deal that had been rumored for close to a fortnight. Twenty-year-old Brazilian attacking midfielder Phillipe Coutinho was granted a British work permit, allowing the Reds to complete his $13.4 million move from Inter Milan.
“I’m feeling very happy, it’s a very important step in my career,” Coutinho told this new club’s website. “I’m expecting to come here and play good football to give my contribution on the pitch.”
Celebrated as the future of the Nerazzurri when he was bought from Vasco de Gama in 2010, Coutinho only showed scarce flashes of his potential during parts of three seasons at the San Siro. In 28 league matches, he scored three times but has only featured in 10 Serie A matches since returning from last season’s loan spell at Espanyol.
In Spain, Coutinho looked like the player Inter thought they were getting from Vasco, the Brazilian scoring five times in 16 appearances in Barcelona. Though those performances gave Inter fans reason to believe Coutinho would flourish open his return to Milan, the attacker has been unable to get regular time under Andrea Stramaccioni. Two-and-a-half seasons and 28 games after being brought over as an 18-year-old, Coutinho is surplus to requirements.
It’s a complete turnaround from where Coutinho found himself before his arrival in Italy. Back in 2010, Coutinho was a year removed from a part in Brazil’s U-17 world title team. He’s worked his way into a Vasco side that had just gotten promoted to Brazil’s Serie A. He’d known since he was 16 that was going to end up in Milan. There’s a reason why Inter considered him key part of their future.
Small, quick, and extremely skilled, Coutinho can be deployed across the width of the pitch behind the striker. Ideally he’s play through the middle, either in support of another forward or as an outright No. 10. Unfortunately, at the level at which Inter Milan plays, those positions demand output: goals, assists, chances created. At this point in his career, Coutinho’s just doesn’t bring enough production to justify a spot.
“I’m a player who likes to make moves and to play along with the attack, passing as well as scoring,” Coutinho said. Unfortunately, neither skill won him meaningful time in Milan.
Now he’s gone, and while it may be too early to give up on somebody that promising, but Inter got a good price for him. In agreeing to the £8.5 million fee, Liverpool’s agreed to pay for potential instead of performance, but when you’re talking about hyped 20-year-olds, that’s the cost of playing this game.
But with any questionable fee, there are immediate questions. Is Coutinho worth it? Does Liverpool need him? What else could the club have done with that money?
Coutinho will never be worth it. In the present, he’s too expensive, and if he comes good, $13.4 will seem cheap. Inter’s price is that ethereal middle ground that allows them to justify abandoning their investment.
Liverpool, however, doesn’t need Coutinho. They’ve got Suso. Moroccan Oussama Assaidi has used Africa Cup of Nations to remind Liverpool fans he deserves more time. Jonjo Shelvey, a completely different kind of player, can occupy some of the same spaces Brendan Rodgers may play their new prospect. The Reds don’t need Coutinho, so they must feel they’re getting value.
The bigger questions are more basic. How good is he? Can he live up to his hype? And now, how will he fit in England?
He’s got the talent to be one of the league’s best players, but that’s a statement that would have been true four years ago. There’s little reason to believe Coutinho’s going to step on Mersey and become the player he’s supposed to be, but the most beguiling point of this move? That transformation could happen at any time.