Philippe Coutinho must adjust his natural game to fit into Barcelona's chain of command

Andy West 6/01/2018
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The successor: Philippe Coutinho

Whatever you might think about Barcelona’s pursuit of Philippe Coutinho, you certainly can’t accuse them of flashing the cash on a whim.

La Liga’s leaders have been relentlessly chasing the Brazilian playmaker for nearly a year now, and even the spiralling fee they eventually had to cough up wasn’t enough to dissuade them from pushing through the deal for a player who was clearly their number one target.

The question is why exactly Barca were so determined to stretch Liverpool’s resistance to breaking point, and the answer is pretty simple: Andres Iniesta.

The iconic club captain, who will turn 34 in May, is on his last legs now, and needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency.

Iniesta has already started 13 league games in the current campaign, as many as he managed in the entirety of last season, but his frailty is shown by the fact that he was substituted in every single one of those outings, also being replaced before the 90-minute mark in each of his four Champions League games this season.

In the short-term, manager Ernesto Valverde is determined to minimise the dangers of Iniesta suffering injury or loss of form through an overload of work, and the recruitment of Coutinho – who is cup-tied for the Champions League – will allow Iniesta to take a break on the weekends and focus his efforts on the likes of Chelsea.

And from a longer-term perspective, it’s increasingly apparent that Iniesta will be able to play fewer and fewer games over the remainder of his career, and that his availability should be regarded as a welcome bonus rather than a taken for-granted-given.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that neither Coutinho nor anyone else could ever be regarded as a direct replacement for a legend like Iniesta, who has made the second-highest number of appearances in the Blaugrana’s history and may well end up overhauling his long-time midfield partner Xavi in first place.

Days are numbered: Andres Iniesta

Days are numbered: Andres Iniesta

Nobody could fill Iniesta’s shoes and offer exactly the same qualities as the dribbling wizard, so it would be unfair to burden Coutinho with a tag like ‘the new Iniesta’.

But in terms of a position in the team which needs to be occupied – linking midfield with attack, using technical ability to control the rhythm of a game and prise open opposition defences – Iniesta’s gradual decline means there’s an important vacancy and Barca’s dogged pursuit of Coutinho makes it clear they believe he is the best possible option.

Whether he really is the best option remains to be seen, but Coutinho will need to change his style if he wants to succeed at Camp Nou – especially considering the new playmaking role now being filled by Lionel Messi.

Simply stated, Coutinho needs to make sure that he doesn’t get in Messi’s way – quite literally, because they like to occupy similar spaces on the pitch, just outside the penalty area, searching for space between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence.

At Liverpool, Coutinho has been the team’s chief playmaker, with the responsibility for feeding his team’s forwards.

Barcelona, however, already have someone else who is pretty good at doing that, and it will be vital for Coutinho to support Messi’s creative skills rather than trying to outshine them.

Perhaps it’s easier to think of the necessities of Coutinho’s role in this way: instead of linking up with another former Liverpool player, Luis Suarez, his closest partner in associative play should be Sergio Busquets, taking on the responsibility for generating phases of possession rather than concluding them.

It’s not as simple as this, of course, but the ‘chain of command’ as the ball moves forward should be something like Busquets-Coutinho-Messi-Suarez, and the Brazilian will therefore have to become accustomed to playing in a deeper position than he did for Liverpool, helping to control the centre circle rather than penetrating the penalty box.

This is all just a loose guide rather than a rigid framework, and Coutinho’s versatility ensures he will be given plenty of opportunities to showcase the finishing skills which have seen him become a regular on Liverpool’s scoresheet.

But that will not be his most important task. With Messi, Suarez and Ousmane Dembele all available to score goals, and Antoine Griezmann perhaps joining them in the summer, Barca need someone to maintain the flow of the team, and to help carry out defensive duties to ensure Busquets isn’t overloaded off the ball.

It’s a major challenge, but for such a sky-high fee that is only to be expected. Coutinho has the talent, no doubt. But the question now is whether he possesses the selflessness to adjust his natural game and fit his abilities into a team structure which is built around someone else.

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Five things you didn't know about Barcelona bound Philippe Coutinho

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Barcelona appear to have finally succeeded in their long pursuit of Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho.

Reports in both Spain and the UK suggest a British record fee of £142million – with £105m up front – has been agreed for the Brazil international.

That would be a considerable increase on the £118m which the Catalan club offered and had rejected in August when they made their third unsuccessful bid of the summer.

The 25-year-old, who has not played since the transfer window opened because of a thigh problem, did not travel with the squad for their warm weather training camp in Dubai.

It is now claimed he is travelling to Spain on Saturday night ahead of his presentation on Sunday

Here are five things you probably didn’t know about Coutinho.

Futsal was his first love before football 

Before the Brazilian stunned crowds at Anfield, he starred around the halls of Rio de Janeiro in futsal.

With restricted space, the diminutive midfielder honed his skills, developing a firm touch and quality ball control.

After joining a local football academy, it wasn’t long before Vasco de Gama came calling to acquire the youngster’s services – a club he would go on to spend nine years at before signing for Inter Milan.

The tournament that put his name on the map

It was in 2008 as a 16-year-old when Coutinho got his first chance to impress on international shores.

Representing Brazil, he took part in the U-16 Mediterranean Cup in Spain, lining up alongside a youngster from Sao Paolo named Neymar.

It was here where Inter Milan scouts noticed Coutinho – and he was bought for €4 million – but the move didn’t come into effect until two years later when he turned 18.

Luis Suarez is a close friend off the pitch

Since playing together at Liverpool during the 2013/14 season, Coutinho has maintained a solid friendship with Luis Suarez, who was his neighbour in England.

Suarez even came out in the media during the summer to praise Coutinho when reports were widespread about the Brazilian signing for the Camp Nou outfit.

The Uruguayan said: “I know him as a person and as a player because I played with him, but what Coutinho can contribute everyone knows.

Cites Neymar as his inspiration

While he cuts an imposing presence himself for club and country, Coutinho cites Neymar as his idol on the pitch.

In a recent interview with Four Four Two, the Barcelona bound star suggested he had based his game around the PSG man: “He’s our main idol in Brazilian football and someone young children look up to.”

The pair have played alongside each other with Brazil for nearly a decade – and between them – are the two most expensive players in the world.

Barcelona memories

The Brazilian knows what it’s like to play at the Camp Nou during his season on loan at Espanyol 2012.

Coutinho came on as a second half substitute in a comprehensive 4-0 derby defeat – where Lionel Messi netted four goals in Pep Guardiola’s final derby as manager.

Six years on, Coutinho returns to the city a different player and one that will make a difference as Ernesto Valverde’s attempt to lift the La Liga title for a third time in four seasons.

The magician

His remarkable talents have earned him the nickname ‘O Magico’ in Brazil.

He may be just 5’8, but he oozes confidence around the park with his crisp passing ability and attacking flair.

Although he was sidelined for the start of the season, the 25-year-old still managed to net 15 goals and provide eight assists in 25 matches in all competitions.

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"We better have a replacement lined up" - Reaction as Barcelona agree £142m Philippe Coutinho deal

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Going, going, gone: Philippe Coutinho

Barcelona appear to have finally succeeded in their long pursuit of Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho.

Reports in both Spain and the UK suggest a British record fee of £142million – with £105m up front – has been agreed for the Brazil international.

That would be a considerable increase on the £118m which the Catalan club offered and had rejected in August when they made their third unsuccessful bid of the summer.

The 25-year-old, who has not played since the transfer window opened because of a thigh problem, did not travel with the squad for their warm weather training camp in Dubai.

Below is reaction from fans and media alike.

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