Tuesday, January 25, 2022

How Steven Gerrard’s ties with Philippe Coutinho make Aston Villa’s potential loan a gamble worth taking

There’s a great excerpt in Steven Gerrard’s 2015 autobiography, the same year he left Liverpool, where the current Aston Villa manager talks fondly about Philippe Coutinho and their days together at Anfield.

Gerrard reflects back to 2014, right in the midst of Luis Suarez getting ready to leave for Barcelona, and the Uruguayan gives Gerrard a request about the Brazilian, who arrived on Merseyside in 2013.

“Make sure you look after him [Coutinho],” Suarez said to the former Reds captain. “He’s a good kid.” Suarez’s plea was not just about taking care of Coutinho on the pitch, but off it too. He wanted Gerrard to make sure he felt comfortable away from home as every South American, in one way or another, often struggles with the cultural shift. In England, even more so.

Gerrard took Suarez’s request to heart and kept it, texting and talking to Coutinho, making sure he was happy in his new environment. Coutinho’s years at Liverpool are filled with great memories, which included several individual accolades. He scored 54 goals in 201 matches, becoming the highest scoring Brazilian in the league (41 goals) until the end of 2018, when his friend Roberto Firmino passed him in a 5-1 victory against Arsenal. He was nicknamed “The Magician” because of his ability of pulling something out of nothing, and that he would often do. 

Collective titles, however, did not come and that was a major reason toward the Brazilian’s decision to leave and join Barcelona — he wanted silverware. Ironically enough, that search for titles has come at a price, costing him to deliver in the same manner.

His talents are undeniable and at 29 years old, having won titles in four nations, including Copa America with Brazil and the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Coutinho still has a lot to offer. The point is that he needs three things: Discipline, consistency and praise. I talked to Coutinho back in 2020 when he was on loan at Bayern and one thing that became abundantly clear is that he is an optimist with a bright disposition, no matter what. He has a tattoo on his arm (made when he was at Liverpool) that says, “Never Stop Dreaming,” and that sentiment has never gone away.

“I’m focused on reaching my dreams and never looking back” he told me back then. A glass half full is always on his mind.

So here we are again with Coutinho’s friend. Reportedly, it was a phone call between Gerrard and Coutinho that sparked the process of a move to Villa Park. It’s unsurprising that Gerrard’s influence dictates the narrative. 

On Thursday, the manager stayed tight-lipped about the possibility of bringing the Brazilian via loan in the January transfer window. “If you’re looking to link it to any speculation or catch me out, you’re in for a long afternoon,” he told a reporter. 

Nevertheless, something is brewing and the speculation continues to solidify as Villa seems to be closing in. Barcelona are desperate to ease their financial books in order to register players (Ferran Torres) and alleviate some of the debt that they have accumulated. From a contractual point of view, that’s my biggest worry about the move. I want to make sure that the deal for Coutinho suits Aston Villa above anything else and the option to purchase at a later date should be carefully considered.

There are also other factors such as Villa’s other needs. The club is determined to improve defensively after Axel Tuanzebe’s departure (Napoli) and key absences due to Africa Cup Nations (Trezeguet, Bertrand Traore) and injuries (Marvelous Nakamba, Leon Bailey), which actually create a bigger reason for the Brazilian’s arrival.

There is also the fact that Coutinho, whether Villa fans want to admit it or not, brings shades of what Jack Grealish used to offer. They are creators, who love the ball at their feet, often waiting for the opponent to make his move before they magically disappear.

“One of my favorites to watch is Coutinho, ‘cus he always has that one, you know, where he goes left and drops like a little shimmy, which is what I like doing myself,” said Grealish last summer to the BBC, before heading to Man City.

The similarities are there, and perhaps, the same personality attributes, and this is why Luis Suarez said those words to Gerrard way back. When you have a player like Coutinho, the only way you can get the best out of him is to nurture his attributes and make them a main course of your menu. It doesn’t have to be the only course, but it has to be a main dish. This is why he hasn’t succeeded recently. Because he has been a part-time player, a contributor, the assistant as opposed to the magician. This has been the case even for Brazil, as he hasn’t even started for them since October 2020. 

But Villa, a former European champion, can hopefully reignite the fire. It’s a gamble, but it’s one worth taking. There is no doubt that Aston Villa are a club in transition with high objectives, but the road is long and arduous as Gerrard’s side knows the tough tasks that need to be done in order to reach a European spot. But what the club offers Philippe Coutinho is the promise of ambition, desire, playing time and an opportunity to dream big.

Just like it’s tattooed on the Brazilian’s arm. 

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