Philippe Coutinho and stuffing square pegs in round holes

(Photo Credits: Independent BD)

‘The Brazilian magician is all set to light up the Camp Nou this summer’ ran a line in the Barcelona sub-section on Nike’s official website that featured an image of Philippe Coutinho in the Blaugrana.

Fun fact though, this gimmick on their website actually took place before Barcelona even reached a mouth-watering deal with Liverpool and was deleted minutes later.

To save face of the Nike digital media intern that posted about the Coutinho deal a month too early and must’ve gotten fired for it, Barcelona and Liverpool finally agreed on a transfer after months and months of painful negotiations, bargaining, compromising and haggling.
And so, the price was set.

Liverpool would depart with its number 10 who was insistent on leaving for the shores of the Mediterranean on the eastern coast of Spain and Barcelona would have to cough up 146 million euros, making Coutinho the third most expensive transfer in the history of the sport.

‘He will be succeeding Andres Iniesta’, was the idea behind going through all the pain of bringing him to the Camp Nou, clarified Robert Fernandez, Barcelona’s technical director up until last year. And for a good half a year, the cule fanbase soaked it up and worshipped the thought. And who could blame them?

Between Iniesta calling time on his beautiful European career and Philippe Coutinho arriving with the reputation of a star player, a magician who with the flick of his hip and a swing of his boot could decide matches all on his own, you would understand the temptation to believe he was the chosen one- the next Brazilian stalwart to light up the Camp Nou following in the footsteps of Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Dani Alves and Neymar.

And all it took Coutinho to make Barcelona fans obsess over the idea of him replacing their legendary number 8 was one minute on his debut against Espanyol. A quick shift and switching the ball from the left leg to the right in Iniesta’s trademark Croqueta move followed by a nutmeg and the Camp Nou was on its feet hoping it was witnessing the start of something special.

There was a certain panache and swagger about Coutinho’s short debut cameo that night, it felt as if he had belonged in Barcelona all his life. And at the price of upwards of 140 million, you’d think that was pretty natural.

Coutinho would play that way for the remainder of the half season in Catalonia, being an active protagonist, swinging his wand and producing some absolute bangers and went on to win the league and the cup with Barcelona by the end of the season.

A year down the line, the goals have dried up, the muscles responsible for Coutinho’s smile have long relaxed and he looks less like himself and more like someone the world of football used to know with every passing game. The secret’s out and it is out loud, screaming and is clear as daylight by now- Coutinho wasn’t meant to fit in the Barcelona jigsaw puzzle. He is a square peg in a round hole.

Tactics and how the game actually pans out on the pitch is a lot different than what FIFA and PES would have you believe. It is not as black and white as it might seem where player attributes and individualism dominate the game. It involves a lot more consisting of all shades on the palette where you need to work out your team’s footballing identity, base a system that supports your players and gauge the opposition the best and then fit players into the straw so that they not only uphold the system but also complement each other better.

The common understanding is that Coutinho was brought in to play the number 8 role after Iniesta’s departure where he would be the attacking midfielder of the side and bring lethality and an injection of pace, flair and power. Valverde however has ruled out using Coutinho as a midfielder this season since he is too direct for a Barcelona system that so relies on the rhythmic ‘pausa’- knowing when and how to initiate attacks is just as important as knowing when to slow the game down and bring others in action.

The next obvious course of action is switching Coutinho to the wings to fill for the absence of another rather well known Brazilian and friend.
However, Coutinho’s limited dribbling skillset, lack of pace and Jordi Alba’s on the left flank has also made him a liability in that regard. The next wise thing to do would be to give him a free number 10 role similar to the one that brought him glory and success at Liverpool.
However, that isn’t exactly a feasible solution when the best player in history plays there too. But even in the absence of Messi, Coutinho has failed to step up.

The cumulation of it all has resulted in a player that looks down and out of confidence, who has become restricted to the bench and comes on only to kill time and despite that, fails to get the basics right.

This begs the question about the extent to which a massive transfer like Coutinho’s was thought and analysed because sportingly, surely, someone on the technical personnel should’ve seen it coming. Heck, even Coutinho’s manager at Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp knew that Philippe wasn’t best suited to the Blaugrana system.

So why was he signed?

Since the 2000s, the word ‘image rights’ has been thrown around a lot in football where footballers have stopped to exist as just sportsmen and have transcended the celebrity divide to become marketable brands instead. Real Madrid’s earliest shot at building the Galacticos with Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Beckham was the first instance of this in the game of football, followed by Manchester United’s global commercialisation and everybody else followed suit.

It is no secret that PSG triggering the release clause of Neymar sent the club to a state of shock and panic where they had to recover not only with quality on the pitch but also gain lost economic footing. And who better to look at than Nike’s biggest face after Neymar, Philippe Coutinho who are also Barcelona’s title sporting partner and their biggest sponsor after Rakuten.

Barcelona hoped Coutinho who’d be arriving as a star player in his own right, having been the talisman of Liverpool for a good few seasons would recover some of the dent that the club suffered following the exit of Neymar.

The result of such short term economy driven planning coupled with the need to appease Barca’s socis following the vote of no confidence motion ended up being the over-inflated disaster about the Coutinho transfer.

Short sighted planning, trying to paper cracks with big names has never worked out as a successful strategy in the long run and the case with Coutinho is no different.

Despite having the backing of the dressing room and his manager, both Barcelona and Coutinho need to realise that they are not meant for each other and it will be in the best interest of both if Philippe is offloaded sooner rather than later.

Coutinho is still only 26 and at the end of the day, is still a world class talent who is capable of leading a side fine-tuned to suit his abilities and talent on the pitch. Breaking even on their initial investment is a highly improbable case for the club, if they are lucky, however and play their cards right they can still get 100 million from him in this bloated market.

It was quite clear during the transfer saga how much Coutinho wanted to make his dreams come true on the eastern shores of Spain, but if that is costing him his smile, his confidence and game-time, he must swallow the hard pill and look for clients elsewhere because you cannot fit a square peg in a round hole without chopping off its edges, something Philippe is better off without.

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