Philippe Coutinho first moved to the city of Barcelona at an uncertain moment in his career. During the January 2012 transfer window, Inter Milan manager Claudio Ranieri shipped him out on loan to Espanyol. His career had stalled at the Milanese club, which had forked out €4 million for him in 2008 just as he turned 16 years old.
"Coutinho went to Inter as a player of great promise, but Inter can be a difficult club for young players. It often doesn't give them opportunities," said Inaki Lorda, a Spanish football writer with expertise on Serie A.
Lorda cited the example of Roberto Carlos. Inter Milan's manager during the mid-1990s, Roy Hodgson, wanted to play him out of position as a winger, which forced him to leave the club, per FourFourTwo magazine.
"Roberto Carlos was sold to Real Madrid and became one of the best players of their history," Lorda said. "When Coutinho arrived at Espanyol, he was only 19 years old, but he became a leader in a team he had never played with before."
At Espanyol, the young Coutinho flourished. In 16 games, he scored five goals, which is the highest goals-per-game ratio he has achieved with the four clubs he played with before signing for Barcelona in a deal announced last weekend. His goals for Espanyol included a cheeky Ronaldinho-like free-kick against Malaga that was passed under the defensive wall into the net, a trick he repeated for Liverpool on a couple of occasions.
"All the fans of La Liga have a memory of the impact of Coutinho in La Liga with Espanyol," said Marcel Beltran, a journalist with Spanish football magazine Panenka. "It went quickly. It was interesting—on one hand there is a positive memory of his individual performances at Espanyol in a very short space of time. He was special. But on the other hand, there is the fact that when Coutinho arrived to play with Espanyol, the team was in a good position in the league. It had a good first half of the season, but in the second half, the team's performances dipped.
"Actually, Coutinho played 16 matches and Espanyol only won two of them. The team lost its strength. One moment, it was challenging for a Champions League place, the next it was fighting to avoid relegation. The team's collective performances didn't match Coutinho's good impression."
Coutinho was still rough around the edges, though. "My memory from that moment in his career is that he was a very young player with great football ability, but he was immature," said former Espanyol player Joan Golobart, who played for the club from 1985 to 1990. "You could see a guy with amazing technical skill. He was fast, and he could dribble, but he was green in his capacity to take decisions, which is a logical part of the process of maturity. He had great qualities, but he was still going through a process of personal development.
"You could see he was a different player. It was similar to what happened when Marco Asensio played a season for Espanyol. You could see Coutinho would be an extraordinary player, but a lot of the things he did, he would improve them later. Above all, he was brave, and he had an innate concept of football. He was the kind of player with qualities that are not a product of learning but are inherent. He had great vision."
Coutinho thrived under then-Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino, who believed in him. "Pochettino is a very demanding trainer," Golobart said. "He transmits to his players the need to give everything. That's his culture. He's passionate about football. He's a bit of a romantic in the sense that he wants to coach footballers. He's not interested in celebrity footballers. Every day he drives his players on.
"Even if you are very young, he will back you if you share his passion. I am sure Coutinho got the message, because Pochettino supported him all the time. Even when there were matches where Coutinho didn't perform the way we wanted, he had continuity. Sometimes there are trainers that don't defend young players, but Pochettino defended Coutinho."
Pochettino often used him as a wide player. "Until then he was a player who was hard to classify," Beltran said. "He wasn't a pure forward, but neither was he a No. 10. He was an imaginative player who liked to play in the final third of the pitch. But by then he hadn't found his place yet in any team. It was Pochettino who was the first to try with him on the extreme left side.
"Years after that, when he finally exploded with Liverpool and became the player he is now—one of the most disruptive players in the game—it was precisely because of his performances coming in from the extreme left. It's true he also appears inside, but it was Pochettino who first located him out wide during that spell at Espanyol."
Coutinho jelled with Espanyol's team, which included a young Hector Moreno, the AS Roma and Mexico central defender. Coutinho found kindred spirits, Lorda said, with several Espanyol players, in particular, especially the more technical ones like Joan Verdu, Vladimir Weiss, Sergio Garcia and Kalu Uche.
Coutinho took to life in Barcelona as well, a cosmopolitan city with lots of light, regular blue skies and a climate not unlike Brazil's. "I remember Coutinho assimilated well to Barcelona," Golobart said, "because it is a very easy city to get adapted to because of its weather and the football ambiance here where footballers are very important. He adapted very well. I think if he could have stayed here for longer he would have stayed."
Coutinho returned to Inter Milan in the summer of 2012, but he moved on to Liverpool six months later, having played under six managers at Inter Milan during his two years playing in the club's first team.
Rafael Benitez, who was Coutinho's first manager at Inter Milan, wrote in a column for El Mundo Deportivo on Sunday that Coutinho's only weakness at the time was his timid nature. Yet Coutinho has shown remarkable determination and ambition to join Barcelona. His old Liverpool teammate Luis Suarez picked him up at El Prat airport when he landed in Barcelona on Saturday night.
"It's not easy for a player to abandon a club, and we've seen the reaction of fans at Liverpool to his decision," Beltran said. "He has insisted on this for a long time—to leave the English Premier League, which is very competitive, on the pitch and financially. It speaks to the character of Coutinho—a guy who takes control of his life."
Coutinho's tenacity extends to paying €10 million toward his record €160 million transfer fee, per Mundo Deportivo, a gesture of goodwill that has endeared him to Barca's fanbase. Golobart, whose time at Espanyol saw him play alongside now-Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde, doesn't necessarily see a contradiction in Coutinho having an introverted personality but also a desire to try to make it at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
"Each person has their own personality," Golobart said. "Every team demands effort and efficiency that could sow seeds of doubt in the mind of a shy player, but Coutinho has advantages. First, he's going to play under a trainer that will allow him time and space to settle in. Second, he is going to a club where his qualities are greatly appreciated. Third, Coutinho could be a tool to extend the professional career of Andres Iniesta because his presence will permit more rotation of Iniesta. That means Iniesta will be fresher, which will help to get better performances from him.
"Then there is something that is very important for a player like Coutinho: Barcelona has a kind of security in its dressing room, where the good player who wants to succeed is protected. It has leaders that will defend him for his football qualities, like (Lionel) Messi and (Gerard) Pique. These are players with a hierarchy in the dressing room that are going to make life easier for Coutinho because they are intelligent players that know the success of the team depends on all the good players performing at their best.
"Also, there is a special player that I think could be his protector, who also shares his nationality, and I am talking about Paulinho. I believe the analysis that Benitez made is more than correct, and in Espanyol, we could see that Coutinho was shy, and that held him back a little bit, even though he had all these great qualities. In Barcelona, he will be very protected so that his timidity won't affect him and become a defect."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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