LIVERPOOL’S midfield magician, Philippe Coutinho, turns 25 years old today.
In 181 games for the Reds, the playmaker from Rio de Janeiro has notched up 42 goals and 37 assists, growing in importance and consistency throughout his spell at Anfield.
Yet Coutinho’s arrival at Anfield in January 2013, when he was an £8.5million capture from Inter Milan, came as a surprise to many. He had been seen as a hot prospect at one point but had flattered to deceive in Italy and had less than 100 career appearances under his belt.
Could this shy-looking curly-haired 20-year-old with only one cap for Brazil at that stage really cut it in the unforgiving Premier League?
Coutinho grew up in the shadow of the Maracana, where he played futsal with his two older brothers on a concrete pitch. The skills required to play that game, including close control and ability to play in tight spaces, became second nature and he was encouraged by his father to take the next step, signing up for a local boys’ team.
He was spotted playing in a tournament by a coach from Vasco da Gama and offered a trial before joining the club’s youth set-up. Such was the impression he made, Inter paid around £3million when he was just 16 years old, though he remained in Brazil until he was 18 as part of the deal.
He made his debut for Vasco just a week after his 17th birthday and helped them achieve promotion from Brazil’s second division, scoring his first in a 3-2 win over Internacional the following year.
Coutinho joined up with his Inter Milan team-mates at the start of the 2010-11 season, making his first appearance as a substitute in the UEFA Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid.
Rafa Benitez, then in charge of the Italian club, called him the “the future of Inter” despite the player initially being signed by Jose Mourinho, and the Spaniard would play a crucial role in his eventual move to Merseyside.
Despite the praise from Rafa, Coutinho never nailed down a regular first team spot — particularly once Benitez had been sacked after a dispute with the club’s owners. Of 20 appearances in all competitions that season, Coutinho made just six after the Spaniard’s departure.
After just eight appearances in the first half of his second season in Italy, the Brazilian was sent on loan to Espanyol, where he would enjoy the best spell of his pre-Liverpool career, scoring five goals and getting one assist in 16 appearances for the La Liga side.
Upon returning to Inter at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Coutinho played just 19 games, nine in the Europa League, before Liverpool came knocking. Damien Comolli revealed the role Rafa had played in the deal: “We didn’t even know he was that good — it was difficult to watch him play because he was never playing at Inter. We knew about him, we knew he was good, but it was only when Rafa said he’s going to be world-class. When somebody like Rafa says a thing about a player like this, you listen.”
Rafa was right, Coutinho was an almost instant hit at Anfield. Later, Inter’s sporting director Piero Ausilo said letting the Brazilian go was one of the “greatest regrets” of his 20 years with the club.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 21, 2017
A 12-minute substitute appearance was Coutinho’s first in a red shirt and by his second he had a goal to his name, following that up with two assists in a 4-0 win away at Wigan.
The 20-year-old won consecutive player of the month awards in March and April, making his £8.5m price tag look like a steal — linking up with fellow January signing Daniel Sturridge to devastating effect at times.
Coutinho would appear in 33 of the Reds’ league games during their title challenge in 2013-14, scoring the winner in the 3-2 win over Manchester City. He was even more of an ever-present in the next season, though there were concerns over his consistency — despite being capable of magic on his day, his day didn’t perhaps come often enough.
The appointment of Jürgen Klopp has seen Coutinho find a new level. He has established himself as the star man in Liverpool’s side, producing crucial goals in crucial moments, and more of them — from free kicks, to weaving through players, shot from distance, to dinks over the keeper.
It is little surprise that Barcelona are said to be sniffing around – and equally unsurprising that Klopp has batted that interest away.
3 – Philippe Coutinho has been directly involved in three goals in a single game for Liverpool for the first time. Exceptional.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 14, 2017
In 69 games under the German, Coutinho has racked up 25 goals and the club have shown no signs of entertaining interest from the Catalan club.
When asked about a persistent string of stories linking the player to a move to the Nou Camp, Klopp joked last month of a “£400m clause” before adding: “There are absolutely no plans. What our owners say is there is the absolute opportunity not to sell anybody if we do not want to.”
Crucially, the player has shown little desire to move on or move away. It is believed that the dream for most players coming out of South America is to play for one of Real Madrid or Barca, so supporters will be pleased to see Coutinho talking down reports, on top of signing his new, double-your-money contract back in January.
Klopp has been looking at building his team in a way which gets the best out of Coutinho, exploring the idea of playing him in a deeper midfield role to increase his influence as a playmaker and hopefully allow him to explore his full potential at Anfield — demonstrating how key he believes Coutinho to be to Liverpool’s future success.
The Brazilian’s bond with his compatriots Lucas Leiva and Roberto Firmino, as well as Alberto Moreno, appears to have helped him settle on Merseyside — and his friendship with Firmino seems to translate on to the pitch too, with each of them at their best alongside the other.
And upon turning 25 today, Coutinho reiterated that he has a long-term contract with the club: “Talking about this is complicated. I have a contract with my club and it’s long. So my focus is on the present and the national team.”
So happy birthday, Phil.
Here’s to the future and many more goals in a Liverpool shirt.