Should Arsenal, a club at a highly delicate stage of re-gearing, sign the mercurial, itinerant Philippe Coutinho? Should Paris Saint-Germain, three months into an impressively unified rebuild under Mauricio Pochettino, sign the exhilarating, weirdly doom-laden Philippe Coutinho?
On a similar note, should I stab myself through the upper thigh with the twinkly, finely-wrought, pearl-handled meat skewer I’ve just spotted lying over there on the floor before setting off on my run around the block this evening?
On the available evidence, the answer to all of the above is probably no. None of us should do these things. But life is a complex affair. Redemption, fresh starts and the allure of basic, high-end talent can change the narrative in an instant. Plus, of course, it is a very pretty pearl-handled meat skewer.
According to a report this week in the Spanish online newspaper El Confidencial, Coutinho is one of four Barcelona players to be offered for sale in the summer. It is impossible to know these things with any certainty. Plans change all the time. What is certain is Coutinho’s time at Barcelona has been wild. This is a tale of three years, three managers, six trophies, £70m in the bank and the coveted No 1 spot in a poll of the club’s worst-ever big-money signings. All of this while playing quite well at times, never being obviously disruptive, and even making it into the Fifa team of the 2018 World Cup.
But then, aged 28, Coutinho is one of the most baffling elite footballers of the modern age. He remains a delight to watch. He can run, pass, dribble, cover, shoot, make the game up in front of him. This is a player of such dizzying basic skills that he’d have a shot at starting in a world five-a-side team when that much-trailed challenge from Mars finally arrives. But he also seems to be something else, an agent of strange and chaotic forces. Throughout his decade in European football, Coutinho has been a kind of footballing Forrest Gump, the playmaker in the background of history, as disorder and outrageous fortune have shadowed his progress. What I’m saying is: weird stuff follows him around.
Consider the following chain of coincidences. His most obvious contribution to modern football is as a kind of ricochet in the Neymar transfer that convulsed the leagues between 2017-2019. Coutinho was the missile launched, in response, from Merseyside to Catalonia, which then enabled the signings that drove Liverpool’s two years of glory. In the process Coutinho added a key injection to Barcelona’s own financial overheating and – indirectly – to the misguided impression that Liverpool really could keep on winning with a net spend of next to nothing.
Chaos, confusion, rising tides. It all just seems to happen quite near him. Rewind eight years and Coutinho’s first significant act in Europe was to watch as Gareth Bale destroyed Inter’s right flank at San Siro, thereby launching his own extraordinary arc across the decade.
Nothing to do with the 18-year-old in the No 29 shirt. But there he is all the same, a shadow on the grassy knoll. This is the Coutinho effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in Lombardy: in Bucharest Vlad Chiriches squares his shoulders and starts Googling houses in Hadley Wood.
Another key Coutinho ripple was Pochettino’s arrival in the Premier League, combined with the defenestration of Nigel Adkins. Nicola Cortese, Southampton’s executive chairman, had gone to Espanyol to scout Coutinho. He saw Pochettino striding about his touchline like a handsome bear with a particularly striking interest in football, and took the manager instead.
So Coutinho washed up at Liverpool, where he had four excellent years, but was of course there in Steven Gerrard’s eyeline at Anfield in April 2014, the alternative passing option to that fatal slip; and there coming on a week later in the 78th minute at Crystal Palace just before 3-0 turned to 3-3. You could mention that Inter chewed though four managers in his time. Or that as Barcelona’s record signing his best moment so far is scoring two for the opposition in an 8-2 thrashing of his own employers. Or that he helped persuade Thiago Alcântara to go the other way to Liverpool, a world-class boomerang hex.
But, of course, none of this is actually his doing. This is not cause and effect. It is simply a story, the kind of weird displacement energy that seems to circle certain people at certain times.
And so back now, and the idea that Arsenal or anyone else might be tempted to sign Coutinho, who has, it should be noted, a very active and successful agent in Kia Joorabchian. The obvious answer is: don’t do it. He’s a sprite and a banshee. He’s a fire-starter. And yet he could be a brilliant signing. The curse of Coutinho is the curse of modern football idiocy, the greed of other people, a man carried along by the tides of Qatari soft-power nationalism, Catalan ambition, his own deceptively subtle talents.
Coutinho can still have the defining period his talent demands, but only as a signing made with eyes wide open, and with a pre-planned role in mind. Because he is a complex footballer. This is not a ready-made part, but a systems player who wants to set the rhythms, to take a lot of touches, to play the pass before the pass. He can make your team work, but it takes a full commitment and the right components around him, as Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp managed at various points.
Mikel Arteta, for example, has built carefully. Does he need a high-spec midfield addition? It is to be hoped Arteta himself would be the defining call on that. For now it would be fascinating to see some ambitious hopeful ignore the omens, the chaos of the past, and take up that jewelled dagger in earnest.