To be fair to Caught Offside – who first broke the ‘news’ of Manchester United’s supposed interest in Philippe Coutinho – it was the most perfect of transfer rumours. Take Liverpool, add Manchester United, stir in the eternally fascinating concept of the big-money flop, throw in a pretty big number (always throw in a pretty big number) and you have pure alchemy. That was ten days ago and still the rumour rumbles on about a transfer that has pretty much zero chance of ever coming to fruition.
A week after those claims originated on an English website, Spanish newspapers were telling their readers that the Brazilian was ‘tempted’ by Manchester United, when really they meant that Coutinho’s agents were tempted by the opportunity to use Manchester United’s reported interest for leverage as their client shifted uncomfortably from bum cheek to bum cheek on the Barcelona bench. Perpetuating this rumour suits Coutinho, it suits United and it certainly suits a media desperate for this January to spark into action beyond Stamford Bridge and Bournemouth.
This January window – whether for reasons of Brexit or otherwise – is a damp squib. After the hedonistic thrill of last year, when six of the ten biggest winter transfers of all time went through in one glorious month, with Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan also swapping clubs for that extra shot of wonderful, sexy business, comes a window when Dominic Solanke is the headline name. So it’s little wonder that the media (and we include ourselves here) leap on Coutinho like rabid dogs. Sorry, we leap on £100m-rated Barcelona flop Coutinho like rabid dogs.
Without a great deal of research, phrases like ‘struggling for minutes’ and ‘on the fringes’ are bandied around. This shit is easy. Except it’s not strictly true. In fact, Coutinho has played more minutes for Barcelona this season than all but eight players. His two starts this week – since the ‘news’ of Manchester United’s interest broke, coincidentally – have taken him past Ousmane Dembele in that particular list. He is not the first name on the team sheet but he is absolutely not a pariah. By all sensible accounts, Barcelona still have faith that the Brazilian will emerge as a key player. They have no intention of selling the Brazilian and he has no intention of seriously agitating for a move and admitting failure. There are no parallels with Isco, whose goose really is cooked in Madrid.
“He has incredible quality,” said Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde after watching Coutinho provide the meat in a Luis Suarez one-two sandwich for Barcelona’s opening goal of a 3-0 win over Eibar on Sunday. Do those sound like the words of a coach desperate to offload a player bought just a year ago? He may not have been gifted the ‘new Andres Iniesta’ some promised but he has got a player who sits behind only Lionel Messi and Dembele in terms of creativity in what is admittedly a pretty unremarkable Barcelona side. He is neither revelation nor flop. Success nor failure. But that does not suit the narrative of a story that delivers the perfect storm of transfers, Manchester United and Liverpool.
By February it will all be forgotten and Coutinho will go back to winning La Liga and fighting for a Champions League trophy with Barcelona, Manchester United fans will return to the thrills of a top-four place, Liverpool fans will concentrate on a genuine title challenge and we will all go back to writing about football. This rumour will have served its purpose.