Why Philippe Coutinho was probably doomed from the start at Barcelona
As Philippe Coutinho trudged off the pitch after 82 middling minutes at Espanyol on Saturday, he probably knew what was coming.
For most players, at most clubs, a decent if unspectacular display in a 2-0 win would generate little discussion. For the club-record signing at Barcelona, it's cause for agitation, alarm and days of rabid speculation.
And so it came. The latest emerging from Spain is that the player himself may fancy a change of scene in the summer, with Manchester United and Chelsea his most likely destinations.
Not that you’d have known it 12 minutes into Tuesday night’s game, when Coutinho opened the scoring against Villarreal. But he faded, and when Barcelona trailed with half an hour to play it was the Brazilian who was hauled off. His replacement, Leo Messi, promptly salvaged a thrilling point.
If Coutinho were to depart the Camp Nou, it would be a strange kind of failure – if indeed failure is the word. He’ll almost certainly have won two league titles; two, possibly three domestic cups; and perhaps even a Champions League. He’ll have scored a goal every three games or so along the way, many of them eye-poppingly spectacular. Not bad, you’d think, for your first 18 months on the job.
And yet the doubts about his suitability continue to grow – not least within the Barcelona boardroom where, if the Spanish tabloids are to be believed, there is a willingness to cash in on the club’s record signing while there’s still time.
When the dust settles, that leaves a faintly odd situation. Philippe Coutinho at Barcelona: where has it all gone not-quite-right?
Perhaps the most obvious answer lies with Eric Djemba-Djemba. And Theo Walcott. And Lassana Diarra. And every other mere mortal who has been parachuted into a trophy-hoovering superclub with the remit of replacing a fresh-in-the-memory legend.
In Coutinho’s case, of course, it was Andres Iniesta – not merely a modern great but bona fide Catalan royalty – and that the transfer was so clearly engineered as a passing of the baton surely can’t have helped the incomer, much as it might have flattered him. From day one, he was being judged not on his own terms but by a set of unachievable standards imposed from above.
Add to that the fact that the two players aren’t as similar as you might think. Granted, both are nippy, slight, velvet-booted midfielders who wouldn’t leave a footprint on the beach. But Iniesta was a puppeteer who coaxed his team towards wins with rhythmic passing; Coutinho, on the other hand, is a player of moments, someone who decides games with a flash of magic summoned from thin air.
Nothing wrong with that, of course – except it’s Iniesta’s style of play, rather than Coutinho’s, that is regarded as gospel at the club. A 30-yarder spanked into the top corner is all well and good, but the ball-hogging brilliance of the Guardiola years, in which Iniesta starred, restored and entrenched the idea that the Camp Nou is a mecca of possession.
Which may be pious and self-indulgent, but, like all pious and self-indulgent dogmas, makes for a very compelling self-image. (It might also be a slightly dubious one, given that the treble-winning side of 2015 were above all master counter-attackers, and last month’s 4-1 triumph at Betis saw Barcelona win with the lowest proportion of possession since the pre-Guardiola days. But that’s a matter for another time.)
Master of none
None of which is to say that Coutinho’s struggles in the last year-and-a-half have been somehow confected or that he hasn’t disappointed by his own standards.
Most obviously, confusion still reigns about what exactly constitutes his best position: is it as a forward-roving midfielder, where his defensive deficiencies have been laid bare this year, and where his compatriot Arthur has looked far more at home; or is it on the left of a front three, where his creative instincts are blunted and the pacier Ousmane Dembele is rightly the first pick? He has impressed in both roles, but not impressed consistently in either.
Injuries haven’t helped – a hamstring lay-off in November came just as his form had picked up – but there have been highs, too, notably a glorious display in the 5-0 evisceration of Sevilla that clinched last year’s Copa del Rey.
Last season he rattled home 10 goals in 22 games – including seven in six on the home straight – which seemed to make mockery of the idea of “bedding-in time”. But overall those highs have been too isolated, and the cohesion with his team-mates hasn’t quite been seamless enough.
It’s worth remembering that none of this is particularly new to Coutinho. Back in 2010, he joined a thriving superclub to voluble hype, collected a handful of medals and yet was ushered out the back door after a couple of seasons, having failed to make the expected impression. In that instance, Inter Milan’s loss was Liverpool’s gain.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for his current employers. But if not, the broader lesson is that there is a yawning grey area between success and failure. There’ll be plenty wanting to brand him as the latter, and he certainly won’t have been the former. But when your task is to step into the shoes of an icon, maybe “successful” is just another way of saying “impossible”.
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