No sooner had Philippe Coutinho’s frenetic scribble sealed a £142m transfer to Barcelona, than he was forced to swiftly hurdle the first attempted tackle on him at Camp Nou. What, one interrogator asked at his unveiling, did he make of his fee? “It’s an honour but I’ll leave the topic of money for the clubs,” he deftly replied. Yet the question is bound to scratch and linger, and could potentially turn poisonous. Is such a sum – the second biggest transfer in history – for the 25-year-old Brazilian justified?
Barcelona’s thinking is easy to grasp. They are scooting away with the league title but their goals per game rate is at its lowest since the 2013-14 season after which they subsequently rearmed by signing Luis Suárez from Liverpool for £75m. Their squad clearly needs freshening up too. For while Lionel Messi has 60 goals and assists in La Liga since the start of last season – more than anyone in Europe’s top five leagues – and Suárez is second with 53, both are closing in on their 31st birthday. Sports Science 101 tells us that physically they are on the decline, even if the eye test doesn’t always back that up.
Coutinho also represents a shiny upgrade on the 33-year-old Andrés Iniesta, the man he has been bought to replace.
As Omar Chaudhuri, the head of intelligence at football consultancy 21st Club, points out, since the start of last season the Brazilian has scored 20 league goals and provided 13 assists – while Iniesta has just one goal and three assists.
Chaudhuri, who works with several leading European clubs, also points out that Coutinho tends to get on the ball more inside the final third compared to Iniesta and is almost twice as likely to take on an opponent when in possession, which brings fans off their seats even it doesn’t directly lead to goals. He also, crucially, has his best years ahead of him.
Yet whether the Brazilian is one of the top half dozen or so players in world football is harder to demonstrate. One way to measure attacking ability, for instance, is to look a player’s goals and assists per 90 minutes (G+A per 90). Coutinho averages 0.88 G+A per 90 in the Premier League since the start of 2016-17 – which ranks him 31st in Europe’s five major leagues. Messi, predictably, is way out in front on 1.42, with Kylian Mbappé second. Incidentally, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah is 14th with 1.06. By this measure Coutinho is very good but not exceptional.
Coutinho also scores well on another metric – chances created per match. In the past 18 months he has averaged an impressive 2.81 chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League – the 22nd best in Europe’s major leagues – although he does still rank behind Cesc Fàbregas (4.2), Mesut Özil (3.38), Kevin De Bruyne (3.25) and even Christian Eriksen (2.93).
Of course such figures won’t fully capture Coutinho’s ability, and Barcelona’s intention to make him more of an ‘interior’ midfielder – playing deeper than he does at Liverpool – will mean that other areas of his game, including his quick feet and accurate passing, could be as important as his goal production. Even so, it’s tough to make the case on the numbers that he is truly exceptional.
Interestingly on Monday when the respected CIES Football Observatory published its annual assessment of the transfer values of top players, it ranked Coutinho as the 16th most valuable star in world football at €122m. Their calculations, based on performances, international status, age and contract situation suggested that Neymar (€213m) is the most valuable, with Messi (€202m) second and Harry Kane (€195m) third. Of course Barcelona had a €222m hole in their pockets after selling Neymar to PSG last year, which inflated Coutinho’s fee.
The other question is how much Coutinho’s loss might affect Liverpool. Much, inevitably, will depend on whether they invest wisely, particularly on a new goalkeeper and better defenders. However Mark Taylor, a football analyst who works with a number of British clubs, believes the deal is already a good one for Liverpool.
His numbers suggest that Klopp’s side have actually created slightly better chances when Coutinho has not been in the side this season compared to when he has. “It’s a great deal for Liverpool,” he adds. “They haven’t missed a beat when Coutinho has not been playing. Sadio Mané takes up the slack.”
Meanwhile Chaudhuri insists that most people overestimate how much a single player improves a team’s points tally. Liverpool’s Fab Four are all in the world’s top 50 players according to his numbers, but he believes Coutinho is arguably the least valuable to Klopp because his replacement-level options – Adam Lallana, and from August Naby Keïta – are better or less injury-prone than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge, who are immediate replacements for Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino.
And, controversially, Chaudhuri suggests that the downgrade from Coutinho might only cost Liverpool a couple of points over the season. “Often people (and clubs, in our experience) think the departure of a key player will cost them five to 10 points,” he says. “But if this were the case, if Liverpool lost all of their Fab Four and used their existing replacements, they’d be winning just 40-50 points, which clearly wouldn’t be the case. Instead, they’d probably be closer to a 65-point per season team, which is what is suggested by the model.”
Finally, whatever your view on the transfer, we should probably get used to more nine-figure deals. As Northridge Law’s Ian Lynam – who advises clubs such as Chelsea and Everton and players such as Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli – explains, very big signings have historically cost around 20-25% of a club’s revenue and Coutinho is no different. “The current transfer fees are actually fairly consistent with the revenue growth we have seen in recent years,” he adds.
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