There is an undeniable sadness about the probability of Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona, all the more so in acrimonious circumstances. There is the prospect of a wonderfully inspiring era ending in the pettiness of legal wrangling. It is all a bit like the breakup of The Beatles.
But if we really must let it be, then at least we have some good things ahead to savour. One is the fascinating saga of how Messi will fare in a different shirt. Another is the chance that Barcelona might at last get some of their money's worth from Philippe Coutinho.
When he swapped Liverpool for Barcelona at the start of 2018, Coutinho became one of the most expensive footballers in the history of the game. His signing is indicative of the dreadful mess that Barcelona have become in the past few years, the type of shambles that have provoked Messi's ire. That is not because Coutinho is a bad player. He might not be worth the reported fee upward of €150 million that Barcelona paid for him, but he is clearly a rare talent. He is not, however, the type of player or the type of person that Barcelona needed at that time, and his difficulties at the Nou Camp were hardly a surprise.
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The big problem was that he was bought with the idea that he would succeed Andres Iniesta in the Barcelona midfield. The obvious obstacle there is that Coutinho has never been a genuine midfielder. This was made clear a few months later at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With midfield organizer Renato Augusto struggling for fitness, Brazil played Coutinho in a deeper role and watched his performances decline of the course of the competition. He is not a box-to-box operator. He is a player who does his best work in the final third of the field, usually cutting in from wide on the left.
Barcelona could play him in the front three rather than the midfield trio. But here, too, there was a problem. Centre-forward Luis Suarez was reaching the age when he was losing pace. This was important: Suarez was a master at operating on the shoulder of the last defender, forcing the opposing line back and opening up space for Messi to work his magic. With Suarez slowing down, Barcelona needed a flyer in the front three, a player of express pace happy to have the ball played in front of him. This was not Coutinho, who prefers the ball passed to his feet.
Barcelona's No. 14 -- the shirt worn by Johan Cruyff -- was therefore utterly unable to live up to the huge expectations engendered by his form for Liverpool and his giant price. Some players might be able to brush this off. Coutinho was not one of them.
The Brazilian has had an uneven career, characterized by his problems in stepping up a level. He was a big disappointment for Brazil at under-17 level and a member of the supporting cast in the side that won the Under-20 World Cup. It took him a long time to feel comfortable and do himself justice with the senior Brazil side.
Internazionale picked him up from Vasco da Gama at the age of 16 before he had turned professional. They had to wait two years to take him over the Atlantic, and three years later they gave up on him, letting him go to Liverpool for a paltry fee of around €10m.
They had been too hasty and should have learned the lesson of a loan spell Coutinho had spent with Espanyol. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a big, warm-hearted bear of a coach who specializes in encouraging young talent, Coutinho blossomed -- as he was to do in an exhilarating five years at Anfield.
Quiet and introverted, Coutinho comes across as one of those players who needs to be filled with confidence if he is to thrive. The Barcelona dressing room of 2018 was unlikely to bring the best out of him. Coutinho walked into an environment full of established stars who had come through the ranks and won everything together. It was up to him to prove that he fitted and, seeing as it was so hard to slot him into the team, he did not fit.
The Barcelona fans expected him to produce weekly miracles. When that did not happen, they booed him. He responded with gestures -- putting his fingers in his ears -- and with words -- appearing to insult the supporters after he scored a goal. The relationship between player and club became impossible to sustain, and he was sent out on loan to Bayern Munich.
Now, the situation has changed. First, Coutinho made a point of not extravagantly celebrating the goals he scored at the end of Bayern's recent 8-2 Champions League quarterfinal rout of Barcelona. His stock with the fans might well have risen. Second, in a new, post-Messi team, Coutinho's place in the pecking order could be very different.
Barca are not going to get their money back for him. They could unload him at a massive loss to some team in the Premier League, or they could decide that he offers their best hope of attacking flair and treat him accordingly.
Buying Coutinho at the start of 2018 seemed like an expensive blunder. Having him in late 2020 might just turn out to be a blessing.