When Philippe Coutinho arrives at Melwood for his first training session as a Liverpool player, one wonders how he will introduce himself: with a simple handshake or a nut-meg? The start he made to his Inter career provides us with an insight.
Coutinho came over from Vasco da Gama on a visit during Inter’s treble-winning season. A deal had been in place for a couple of years already, though in accordance with a law in Brazil, it couldn’t be completed until the player turned 18 in the summer of 2010.
In the meantime, Inter thought it would be a good idea for him to fly to Italy, have a medical and while in town, familiarize himself with his new surroundings and future teammates. He was invited by coach Jose Mourinho to participate in a couple of sessions too.
It was during one of these that the teenage Coutinho, to the consternation of many, had the bravado to put the ball through veteran World Cup-winner and former Everton defender Marco Materazzi’s legs.
Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, you have been warned.
“When I got back in the dressing room,” Coutinho told Placar, “the [club] masseur promised me that if I did that again he would buy me snacks for the rest of the week. Materazzi told me he’d put me in hospital.”
It was quite the first impression. “[Coutinho] really is a phenomenon,” Inter president Massimo Moratti said at the time. “He’ll be back at the beginning of July and will be the surprise of the season.”
Everything Inter had seen and heard about him—Careca sensationally claimed he was the second-coming of Zico—appeared to be true. Coutinho had caught the attention of chief scout Pierluigi Casiraghi and the imagination of technical director Marco Branca and director of sport Piero Ausilio.
His performances playing futsal and the regular game at youth level for Vasco and his fine displays for the Brazil side that won the South American championship at Under-15 level in 2007 were causing quite a stir.
Not everyone signs a sponsorship deal with Nike at 16. Real Madrid were interested in him and it was clear that Inter would have to be quick if they were to beat the competition for Coutinho. They did so, agreeing to pay Vasco €3.8m in 2008 for a player who’d yet to appear for their first team.
Later that week, Coutinho played in the final of the Under-17 Copa Brasil. He starred as Vasco triumphed over Santos 2-1. Neymar was on the losing side. He had scored a consolation goal. Both were apparently destined for great things. One would be the fantasista, the other the finisher of Brazil’s next generation.
That they’re the same age allows us to compare their development since then.
In that time, Neymar has fired Santos to the Copa Libertadores, won the Puskas award for his goal against Flamengo and become a household name the world over despite staying in Brazil and resisting a move to a big club in Europe.
Instead, like the da Silva twins for Manchester United or Breno for Bayern Munich, Coutinho left for Europe, and before he’d really made it big in Brazil outside of youth football. It was early, perhaps too early in his career to make the leap.
The step-up from playing in Vasco’s first team as they won promotion back to Brazil’s Serie A to turning out in its namesake in Italy for Inter, the Scudetto, Champions League and Coppa Italia holders, was vast.
Inter aren’t the easiest team to get a break at either. It wasn’t so much that Coutinho didn’t receive any opportunities. Rather that he was thrown in at the deep end. And with the wave machine on too.
Mourinho was gone. Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had been hired as his replacement. The treble-winners, many of whom had also disputed the World Cup in South Africa, were, for the most part, old, fatigued, injury-prone and had maybe lost their hunger.
With Inter unprepared to spend after backing Mourinho to the hilt, Benitez had to make do and mend, supplementing veterans who were either past-it or reaching the end of their careers with youngsters who were raw and not yet ready.
Benitez put his faith in Coutinho. The teenager he once described as “Inter’s future” soon became a part of the team’s present in part because of the circumstances mentioned above but a lot of it had to do with his attitude too.
“He’s Brazilian technically,” Benitez said, “but he’s very European mentally. He’s humble, attentive and has a great willingness to learn.”
In terms of personality, Coutinho is closer to Kaka than Ronaldinho. “I’m not a nightclub-goer,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I don’t drink beer or alcohol and I don’t have any tattoos. I pursue happiness through other avenues. Shall we talk about how great it is to have God inside of us?”
Coutinho appeared almost every week under Benitez. He showed promise in the Champions League against Werder Bremen and featured in the games at home and away to Tottenham.
The then-Brazil coach Mano Menezes called him up to the senior squad and then handed him a debut in a friendly against Iran as part of his plans to bring through a new generation of players ahead of the 2014 World Cup. It was a token gesture: too much too soon.
Watching Coutinho, the prevailing sensation was that, for all the neat flicks, step-overs and drag-backs, th e cuts inside from the left onto his preferred right foot and the sudden bursts of acceleration, he was a bit lightweight and, in Benitez’s words, “lacking a little in physique”, not technique.
The player’s admission too, that if he could steal anything from a teammate then it would be Wesley Sneijder’s “speed of thought” revealed a belief that his decision-making also needs working on.
An injury—the first of a series—followed by Benitez’s dismissal saw Coutinho feature less and less at Inter, so much so that his call-up to the Under-20 World Cup squad, which an Oscar-inspired Brazil won in 2011, was something of a surprise.
Since then his career, like his dribbles, has been a bit stop-start. Continuity has been hard to find. Inter have been through five managers during his time at the club. Not all have played the same system. Some, like Benitez and current boss Andrea Stramaccioni have put their faith in him. Others, like Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri simply haven’t.
A loan spell at Espanyol in the second half of last season appeared to do him the world of good. Coutinho played regularly, scoring five goals in 16 games and came back to Inter all the stronger for it, although still far from the finished article.
It felt like his time at Inter had come. Alas, the club is headed in a different direction.
While many thought the resolution of Wesley Sneijder’s contract dispute and his sale to Galatasaray would mean one less playmaker for Coutinho to compete against, the truth is that they’re moving away from using a classic No.10, employing the physical, bull-in-a-china-shop Fredy Guarin in that position with either Antonio Cassano or Rodrigo Palacio as a second striker off Diego Milito.
Asked if it’s perhaps a bit early to be letting Coutinho go, Moratti told reporters on Monday: “Yes, but things get done for a reason and selling Coutinho is not done with the idea of cashing in but because, looking at the way things have developed recently, we have a greater need in different areas than Coutinho’s position, regardless of his age.”
The need is for a box-to-box midfielder with Inter expected to use the proceeds of Sneijder and Coutinho’s sales to fund the purchase of Corinthians’ Paulinho and failing that Stuttgart’s Zdravko Kuzmanovic or Anderlecht’s Lucas Biglia.
That’s kind of reassuring for Liverpool because Inter aren’t offloading Coutinho under the assumption that he has been a flop. Instead they’re acknowledging that he simply no longer fits within the structure of their team.
Additionally there’s the feeling that the reported fee of €10m [plus another €2.5m in bonuses]—a quite considerable profit on a player who has made little telling impact in two and a half years at the club—represents a great piece of business for Inter.
Or could represent a great piece of business if he doesn’t go onto to realise his potential. And that’s the risk Inter run. Because Coutinho is still only 20 and has almost his entire professional career still in front of him.