Philippe Coutinho would do well to remember that there’s no shame in failing to make the grade at Barcelona.
Come to think of it, what even is the grade at the Nou Camp these days? Coutinho did, after all, score 21 goals and provide a further 11 assists in 76 appearances before being shipped out on loan to Bayern Munich.
Sure, Barcelona might have been expecting a slightly greater return on their £142million investment, but a goal involvement every 2.4 games is nothing to be sniffed at for a player who was shunted from the left to the right and back again, seemingly on the roll of a dice.
That Coutinho was part of back-to-back La Liga winning campaigns shouldn’t be forgotten, neither should his masterful display in the 2018 Copa del Rey dismantling of Sevilla, nor his contribution to the 5-1 El Clasico humbling of Real Madrid.
If you feel the need to label anyone a failure, direct your blame towards the Barcelona hierarchy who sanctioned an outlandish move for a no.10 and then proceeded to use him in his favoured position on precisely nine occasions.
Unfortunately for Coutinho, football fans are a fickle bunch. Upon leaving Barcelona, which appears to be a formality, nobody will remember the good times. He will simply be labelled a ‘flop’. Case closed.
The transfer market is equally fickle. A player deemed worth around £150million two years ago will now- if the bookies are to be believed- be forced to choose between joining Chelsea and Newcastle.
Rather than seeing out his days at an elite club, where success is a must and failure is a second-place league finish, the 27-year-old looks set to finish his career as a big fish in a small pond, hoping for the odd Energy Drink Cup or a novel Champions League run.
But, is that such a bad thing? Not if you ask another Barcelona ‘flop’: Juan Roman Riquelme.
Riquelme joined Barcelona from Boca Juniors in 2002 at the age of 24. Like Coutinho, who had a certain Lionel Messi for company in the no.10 role, Riquelme was parachuted into a Barcelona squad that didn’t require his creative nous.
Louis van Gaal could call upon Gaizka Mendieta, Luis Enrique, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Geovanni so, when the Dutchman did throw scant minutes Riquelme’s way, they tended to come as a winger. Sound familiar, Philippe?
Ronaldinho’s arrival hastened Riquelme’s exit but, as appears to the case with Coutinho, when the time came to leave the Nou Camp, the Argentine was forced to take a step down the footballing ladder.
Real Mallorca, powered by the goals of Samuel Eto’o and still basking in the glow of Copa del Rey glory were an option, as were newly promoted Real Murcia, but Riquelme instead chose to join a Villarreal squad fresh from finishing 15th in La Liga.
What followed were four glorious seasons in which Riquelme played his way into the hearts and minds of anyone lucky enough to watch his languid orchestration of the Yellow Submarine’s plucky side.
No one thinks less of Riquelme for his failure to crack life at Barcelona, or his decision to take what at the time would have been considered the easy path by joining a team with seemingly little to play for.
Indeed, Riquelme’s only silverware from his four seasons with Villarreal was the 2004 Intertoto Cup, a competition with such a bizarre format that it was shared between three different teams (Villarreal, Schalke and Lille).
Stripped of the requirement to win at all costs, Riquelme was liberated to play the best football of his career.
This peerless form was recognised in 2005, when Riquelme was awarded the Don Balon Award for La Liga’s best foreign player, ahead of Eto’o, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldinho, the man whose arrival at Barcelona led directly to the Argentine’s exit.
Far from being regarded as a ‘failure’ or a ‘flop’, Riquelme is considered to be a bona fide cult hero and one of the greatest playmakers of the noughties. His lack of silverware contributes to his myth, rather than detracts from it.
Coutinho is a different player to Riquelme- he can walk faster than the Argentine could sprint- but he possesses the same ability to deceive opponents and delight fans with a nutmeg or a feint.
When Coutinho is at his best, playing on instinct and raw ability, there are few more captivating players in world football.
But right now that isn’t the case. The Brazilian is wrapped up in a bubble of second-guessing, cutting back, and picking the easy pass.
Failing to make the grade at a club like Barcelona, or Bayern Munich for that matter, can make a player’s career feel inadequate, or something of a near miss.
But, in Riquelme, Coutinho has a shining example of what a perceived step backwards can do to further a player’s legacy. The fact that Riquelme was playing for one of La Liga’s traditionally ‘smaller’ teams while tormenting opponents has no bearing on his greatness.
Spending the next four seasons delighting St James’ Park, with Jonjo Shelvey as his Marcos Senna and Jetro Willems as his Juan Pablo Sorin, will do more for Coutinho’s reputation than another two stuttering campaigns at Barcelona, one last attempt at the big time with PSG and a final payday in the Chinese Super League.
Coutinho was the right player at the wrong time for Barcelona, just as Riquelme was 18 years ago. But, if his reinvention is half as fun as Riquelme’s was, we’re in for a good ride.
Viva la nutmegs.
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