Philippe Coutinho's Inter Milan Years: Formative Frustration at the San Siro

Jack Lusby@jacklusby_Featured ColumnistNovember 4, 2016

MILAN, ITALY - AUGUST 30:  Philippe Coutinho of FC Internazionale Milano during the UEFA Europa League play-off match between FC Internazionale Milano and FC Vaslui at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on August 30, 2012 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Given Philippe Coutinho's star status in the Premier League today, it is difficult to rationalise quite why Inter Milan were so willing to part ways with the Brazilian playmaker at the beginning of 2013, with his £8.5 million move to Liverpool representing one of the bargain signings of the decade so far.

But arriving on Merseyside as a bright-eyed 20-year-old, Coutinho still represented something of a gamble for the Reds, who were pushing to add star quality to their side in Brendan Rodgers' first season with the club.

By beating Southampton to his signature at the end of the January transfer window, Liverpool were able to add Coutinho's talents to those of Daniel Sturridge, who signed from Chelsea four weeks previous in a deal worth around £12 million.

Coutinho is now one of the Premier League's very best.
Coutinho is now one of the Premier League's very best.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Between them, Coutinho and Sturridge helped inspire a rally in the second half of the 2012/13 season, scoring 14 goals and laying on 12 assists between them, with Liverpool losing just twice in the Premier League when their No. 10 was on the pitch that season.

Coutinho's progression since that first campaign with the Reds has been phenomenal, and his performances under Jurgen Klopp in 2016/17 have established him as one of the most influential players in the English top flight—only Diego Costa (10) and Alexis Sanchez (nine) have combined more goals and assists (eight) so far.

So how did Coutinho go from surplus at the San Siro to adored at Anfield, and how did his time at Inter shape his development?

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Inter's sporting director, Piero Ausilio, told Sky Italia (h/t the Liverpool Echo's Joe Rimmer) in 2015 that seeing former Nerazzurri starlets flourish elsewhere, such as watching Coutinho shine in Liverpool colours, "makes me sad." That goes some way to highlighting the flaws in the Italian giant's approach.

The Brazilian maestro made his name with Vasco da Gama.
The Brazilian maestro made his name with Vasco da Gama.Felipe Dana/Associated Press/Associated Press

Like his Reds team-mate Roberto Firmino, Coutinho grew up on the margins of Brazil's infamous favelas—Firmino in Maceio, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and Coutinho in Rio de Janeiro, near the Mangueira neighbourhood, overlooked by the Maracana Stadium—and used football as an outlet.

For the midfielder, his first big break came with local side Vasco da Gama, where he progressed through the club's youth system, garnering a reputation as one of Brazil's finest young talents along with Neymar over in Sao Paulo.

This saw him earn his big move to Inter, with the Serie A side paying Vasco around £5 million to secure his services in 2008, allowing him to return to the Brazilian club on loan for two seasons before making the switch to Milan as an 18-year-old in 2010.

As he told CNN's Melissa Reddy in an enthralling interview in 2015, leaving Brazil at such a young age presented the sensitive Coutinho with a major culture shock, with his parents struggling to acclimatise to life in Italy:

They moved with me to help make the settling easier. But it was hard for them. As they were old, it was difficult for them to learn the language or adapt to a new culture and ways of doing things like I could.

Aine (Coutinho's then-girlfriend, now wife) had to change her entire routine. My dad had to quit his job, which was painful because he loves to be busy. My parents eventually moved back to Brazil, so since then it has been me and my wife, although they are always involved.

This, coupled with a change in manager from his signing to his arrival—from Jose Mourinho to Rafa Benitez—made life difficult for Coutinho in his first months at Inter.

He played just 187 minutes of football in the first two months of the 2010/11 campaign, only making one start—at home to Werder Bremen in the UEFA Champions League—and vying for a regular role with the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Goran Pandev.

Coutinho helped Inter to a 4-3 victory over Spurs in 2010.
Coutinho helped Inter to a 4-3 victory over Spurs in 2010.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Coutinho did, however, make a great impression in his first competitive appearance against English opposition, in Inter's 4-3 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the same competition, playing a key role in Javier Zanetti's opener and registering an assist for Samuel Eto'o's second goal of the night.

It was the 21-year-old Gareth Bale who outshone his youthful contemporary on the night, though, with his blistering display, marked by an outstanding hat-trick, announcing him on the European stage.

Hampered by a knee injury he suffered at the end of 2010, Coutinho went on to make a total of 20 appearances for Inter in all competitions that season, scoring once, in a 3-1 victory over Fiorentina, and assisting another Eto'o strike, in a 1-1 draw with Sampdoria.

"I had some injuries, limited game time and things were not going my way, but this was a very, very important period for me," he reflected in conversation with Reddy. "It was the hardest point of my career because it was the first time I had been away from home, and I had to start proving myself from scratch." 

Coutinho had played in three different countries before his 19th birthday.
Coutinho had played in three different countries before his 19th birthday.Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

If his first season with Inter helped mould Coutinho as a person, it was his loan spell with La Liga side Espanyol in the second half of 2011/12 that pushed him to hone his skills as a player.

After another eight appearances and months on the substitutes' bench, in the stands and on the treatment table, Coutinho joined Mauricio Pochettino's Espanyol at the end of January, linking up with an ambitious outfit featuring the likes of Kiko Casilla, Hector Moreno, Vladimir Weiss and Alvaro Vazquez.

Coutinho scored five goals and notched one assist in 16 games in the Spanish top tier, helping Espanyol to a 14th-place finish and earning a long-term admirer in Pochettino—who saw his subsequent efforts to sign him for Saints in 2013 spurned.

Coutinho was once again marginalised on his return to Inter.
Coutinho was once again marginalised on his return to Inter.Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

But while he was given freedom to roam and to dictate play in Barcelona, Coutinho once again found himself restricted on his return to the San Siro—this time under Andrea Stramaccioni.

The Brazilian started just three Serie A games for his new manager, no doubt frustrating the playmaker, who had told reporters following Inter's TIM Trophy triumph in pre-season that "I am doing well because Stramaccioni has faith in me."

For Inter in Serie A in 2012/13, Coutinho averaged 1.2 key passes per 90 minutes, fewer than eight other players to make 10 or more appearances. He averaged more unsuccessful dribbles (five) per 90 than any other Inter player, with only Fredy Guarin (two) hitting more shots off target on average (1.5).

For Liverpool that season, he averaged two key passes, 1.9 unsuccessful dribbles and 0.8 shots off target per 90 minutes, with the difference in his output stark; he has just gone on to improve by the season.

Selling Coutinho is one of a long list of mistakes made by Inter in recent years.
Selling Coutinho is one of a long list of mistakes made by Inter in recent years.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

As suggested by Inter's recent dispatching of Frank de Boer from his managerial post—after just 85 days in charge—the club has been quick to pull the trigger in recent years.

In Coutinho, they possessed a pre-eminent talent, who has established himself within the elite bracket of world football. While it is undoubted that he struggled to adapt to life in Italy, it can certainly be argued he was given little time to do so.

Ausilio's regret paints the perfect picture of Inter's mistake, with the 44-year-old lamenting his impatience, and that of the club's hierarchy, in sanctioning Coutinho's departure.

"He was not playing much, and we lacked patience, so we decided to sell him," he explained in 2015. "I would like young players to grow and succeed here."

Liverpool can enjoy Coutinho magic for years to come.
Liverpool can enjoy Coutinho magic for years to come.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Inter's loss was Liverpool's gain, however, and speaking to fcbusiness' Alex Miller in September, Ausilio's Reds counterpart, Ian Ayre, highlighted Coutinho as one of his favourite signings for Liverpool.

"I remember sitting in the corridors of Inter Milan for the CEO for what felt like five days, trying to convince him to sell Coutinho to us and then jetting him back to Liverpool in time for him to sign before transfer deadline day," Ayre detailed.

That day toward the end of the January transfer window in 2013 could have been a lot different for both clubs, but while it is merely speculative whether Coutinho would have gone on to realise his potential in Milan, it is clear his spell at the San Siro was a formative, if frustrating, one.

      

Jack Lusby will be covering Liverpool throughout 2016/17 as one of Bleacher Report's lead correspondents. Statistics per WhoScored.com and Transfermarkt.co.uk.

Follow Jack on Twitter @jacklusby and Facebook here.