The next Ronaldinho? The successor to Andres Iniesta? Why Coutinho is perfect for Barcelona

Even though Liverpool have announced their fourth signing of the summer, with widely known 18-year-old centre-back Joe Gomez set to join for a reported 3.5 million pounds (although some media sources are reporting the figure to be closer to 6 million pounds), thus sealing a fearsome spine of new signings in Adam Bogdan, Gomez, James Milner, and Danny Ings, and confirming their Premier League top ten credentials for what is sure to be a remarkable 2015-16 campaign, all the buzz is around the interest in Raheem Sterling, the want-away attacker-who-can-also-play-right-wing-back who has been the subject of a rejected 40-million-pound bid from Manchester City. While inches of column, or in this case blog, space should be devoted to lauding Sterling’s management team for somehow convincing the powers of English football that he is worth that sum of money, my interest is in another member of Liverpool’s attacking lineup, one who has attracted little attention in the transfer market, but deserves to be on the lips of Europe’s top footballing superpowers.

Well, one superpower in particular. Let me explain.

Barcelona fans will argue–and rightfully so, in hindsight–that the club did not suffer after losing the talismanic superstar Ronaldinho in 2008; indeed, even the men in charge at the club realized the Brazilian magician had been a shadow of his former self for two years, and his departure helped usher in the greatest period in the history of the club. However, Ronaldinho has not been forgotten at the Camp Nou, such was the force of his contribution, and people will continue to sing his praises for decades to come. You only need to look at the reception the new AC Milan player received upon his return to his old stomping grounds in the Joan Gamper fixture on the 25th of August 2010 to understand how deeply ingrained the buck-toothed genius is in the club’s culture.

His feats will be spoken of in hushed whispers and tearful chants for decades to come. But the fact remains that he was not missed on the pitch.

This past season saw the gradual winding down of another Barcelona legend’s time at the club, with Xavi’s 17-year stay at the club drawing to a close. He saw his time on the pitch curtailed, at first by Luis Enrique’s rotation policy, but subsequently by Ivan Rakitic’s emergence as a worthy replacement for Xavi, both on the pitch and as a representative of a tectonic shift in the team’s playing style. Xavi was lucky enough to end his time at the club on the highest notes, becoming one of a select few to have the distinction of two trebles to his name, and lifting his 4th UEFA Champions League trophy, his first as captain.

An end befitting the story. Has any legend ever bowed out of the European game on a higher note?
An end befitting the story. Has any legend ever bowed out of the European game on a higher note?

However, with Rakitic having made the transition from Sevilla to Barcelona practically seamlessly, and the likes of Rafinha, Rafinha, Sergei Samper, and potentially even the likes of Paul Pogba taking over from Xavi, it is unlikely the Spaniard will be terribly missed as a footballing influence (his cultural legacy is ensured, and cannot be tarnished), especially since Barcelona are fully aware that they shall never find a player capable of facilitating the implementation of tiki-taka the way Xavi did.

However, with club legends Puyol, Valdes, and now Xavi having bid their farewells, we are drawing ever closer to the end of the road for another evergreen La Masia graduate: Andres Iniesta. And the club is yet to provide any evidence that they have identified the man to replace him.

Now many have argued, and I stand with this group, that Iniesta’s influence on Barcelona has greatly reduced from, say, 2 years ago. WhoScored.com reveals that Iniesta made 21 goal contributions (4 goals and 17 assists) in 41 La Liga and Champions League appearances in the 2012-13 season, 13 goal contributions in 44 such games in the 2013-14 campaign, and made only 6 assists and failed to score in 35 appearances in the 2014-15 campaign. Despite this remarkable drop in statistical effectiveness, however, Iniesta has remained an important part of the team’s style of play, retaining its links to the days of slick, quick passing, yet ably playing a role in its newly found focus on counter-attacking football played with pace and effectiveness. He has adapted to the team’s philosophy that gives more importance to the ends rather than the means, but football is a game of results, of individuals living up to standards set in the past, and as the statistics show, Iniesta is failing to contribute as much as he used in the the attacking third of the pitch, which is where Barcelona have shifted their attention. Thus, despite him being “just” 31 years of age, presumably with another 3 or 4 years of silky touches and magical swivels still left in the tank, we have probably reached the time when the decision-makers at Barcelona shall have to cast their attention to the unenviable task of replacing Iniesta.

Now, Iniesta is class personified, and, as was the case with Xavi, finding a direct replacement for him is simply futile. The footballing world has been raving over this brilliant move from Iniesta before he laid on the simplest of goals for Neymar against Paris Saint-German in the Champions League–

–even calling it the signal of his long-awaited resurgence to the heights of his unparalleled powers. However, I feel the skill that embodies above all others the irreplaceable magic that Iniesta possesses is, coincidentally another move against the same opposition:

Although replacing him will be a tall order, I do believe that Barcelona can find a place for a different kind of midfielder within their current formation, especially given the evidence we have seen over the 2014-15 season that their manager Luis Enrique is not afraid to deviate from the pure tiki-taka that was for a period the norm at Barcelona. I can think of three players who could theoretically come into the starting XI for Iniesta as early as this season, and slot in perfectly to ensure that Iniesta’s eventual departure will not have lasting ramifications. Of the three theoretically likely suitors, the first is clearly not a practical solution, but the other two have each in their own way been linked to Barcelona recently. I’ll briefly talk about each, before explaining why I feel one particular player would be as close to perfect a replacement for Iniesta as possible.

First, Isco. The fact that only two players have directly transferred from Real Madrid to Barcelona in the last 50 years (Lucien Muller in 1965 and Luis Enrique in 1996) make it practically impossible for Isco to move to Camp Nou, even if there was any interest from any of the three parties involved. But it would be almost too good to be true for the man many consider to have replaced Iniesta in the Spanish national team, and as the primary creative midfielder in La Liga, to switch sides between the fierce rivals. Now, while Isco obviously has a few years to go before he can even dream of matching, let alone exceeding, the achievements of one of the greatest footballers in Spain’s history, he possesses a strikingly similar set of attributes to Iniesta: supernatural ball control, excellent balance, clarity of thought, highly developed technique, and composed temperament, and is guaranteed to go very far in his career. But it remains unlikely we will ever see Isco follow directly in Iniesta’s footsteps at club level, especially given how well he played for Real this season on his way to establishing himself as arguably their best player of the season bar Ronaldo. Great things lie ahead for him at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Isco is technically as close to Iniesta as you get.
Isco is technically as close to Iniesta as you get. But as we’ve seen for the last decade, it is frustratingly difficult to get the ball off the Barcelona midfielder, and Isco has experienced this first hand.

Next on the three-strong list of potential suitors is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman has been heavily linked with a move to Barcelona, and reportedly has his heart set on the La Liga champions. If he is to make the move from Italy to Spain, it will most likely be to take over from Iniesta on the left side of the midfield three, which is where he spent most of the season at Juventus, with Marchisio next to him, Pirlo behind and Vidal ahead of him in a midfield diamond. For a player of his size, Pogba possesses astonishing technique and touch, and his physicality, mobility and penchant for direct football owed to an education in England would add to that of Rakitic, seemingly hammering the final nail in the coffin in which pure tiki-taka now rests. Pogba would likely represent the greatest shift from the football played by Iniesta, but would undoubtedly be a long-term success, such his his ability to impose himself during games. His knack of scoring from long range would add another dimension to Barcelona’s game, while his ability to drop back and defend, retrieve the ball and set off on mazey attacking runs would give the team another outlet for transitions from defense to attack, if Messi and Neymar prove insufficient for some outlandish reason. Barcelona’s current style of football is incredibly effective, the result of a successful adaptation, and the thing about players as good as Pogba is that they can adapt to slot into any kind of footballing philosophy, and soon develop enough of a presence to drive further adaptations down the road. Regardless of the answer to the question of who shall adapt first and most, it is unlikely that Pogba shall fail to achieve great things at Barcelona, should the rumors of a looming transfer prove to be true.

This caption is almost too corny, but Pogba will be hoping that a transfer to Barcelona will be given the
This caption is almost too corny, but Pogba will be hoping that a transfer to Barcelona will be given the “thumbs up” this summer.

Now while Pogba and Isco are both great players, and would walk into any top European side, the player I feel would be absolutely perfect for Barcelona as they enter a phase of a few years when Iniesta cannot be relied on to play 30 games a season is the one I alluded to in the first paragraph of this hasty attempt to record my thoughts. Yup, the Liverpool attacker who has slipped under the radar despite enjoying an impressive season both at the club and national level. I am talking of a player who has been compared to a Barcelona legend in the past. Without further ado, let’s lift the curtain to reveal the Spanish Xaaa…

No, it’s not Joe Allen. I’m talking about Philippe Coutinho.

Not Joe Allen. Never Joe Allen.

Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking up Coutinho’s suitability for Barcelona just because Ronaldinho did so about a month ago. I’ve believed for some time that Coutinho has everything it takes to replace Iniesta on the left side of Barcelona’s midfield, and fit into this more aggressive counter-attacking iteration of Barcelona’s possession-based philosophy. He has Iniesta’s close control, and while not as elegant, is certainly comparable as a dribbler. Where I believe he compares favourably with Iniesta, and possibly even exceeds the Spaniard, is his vision and ability to find penetrating through balls that spit defenses. Iniesta’s unnatural gift to dribble past opponents has meant that we haven’t seen too many instances of him using his passing ability — one instance that comes to mind is his pass to Xavi for the opening goal in the now-mythical 5-0 win over Real Madrid in the 2010-11 season, but that is about it. But soon after his arrival on English shores in January 2013, Coutinho established himself as arguably the best attacking passer in the Premier League, standing above the likes of Silva and Mata in his ability to beat the man on the turn, spot a pass, and execute it.

Coutinho has given the Premier League enough evidence of his ability to beat a man and find a pass. Devilishly difficult to shrug off the ball when he reaches full steam.
Coutinho has given the Premier League enough evidence of his ability to beat a man and find a pass. Devilishly difficult to shrug off the ball when he reaches full steam.

In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that he is the closest I’ve seen to Michael Laudrup in this aspect. Riquelme was a great passer as well, but didn’t usually dribble past a couple of opponents first. Coutinho has that ability. My conviction that Coutinho has already exceeded Iniesta in effectiveness as a playmaker is vindicated by WhoScored.com statistics for the 2014-15 season: Coutinho averaged 1.6 key passes and 2.8 dribbles per game over 43 games, as compared to Iniesta achieving 0.9 key passes and 1.7 dribbles per game over 35 games.

Coutinho also offers excellent ability from long range, and two and a half seasons in England have weathered him to the physicality of the Premier League, an experience that will stand him in good stead throughout his career. He is accustomed to sticking to the left side of the pitch, and can often be seen dropping deep into his own half to gain possession early in Liverpool’s moves and dictate the direction of the game himself. For an attacking Brazilian player with his ability, he is also remarkably unselfish, and this adds to his play-making prowess. This footage of him playing indoor futsal in Brazil in 2005 proves my point:

What strikes me every time I watch this is his incredible spatial awareness and attentiveness to the presence of his team-mates around him; talented young attackers usually like to go the distance themselves, beating every opponent, rounding the keeper and slotting the ball home to gain all the plaudits, but even at that young age, Coutinho understood his role within a team, and always looked to involve his team-mates in link-up play where appropriate. He has carried this team ethic through to his senior career at Liverpool, where he regularly laid on goals for the likes of Suarez and Sturridge when playing in a supporting role last year. This season, however, he has been expected to take on the role of creative fulcrum in a lackluster team, and has shone when utilized in his best position.

I feel it would do him a world of good if the responsibility of leading a team was taken from his shoulders. We saw Suarez achieve incredible feats of individual brilliance in his last 18 months at Liverpool, but he possibly exceeded his 2013-14 levels during his time at Barcelona, where the onus wasn’t always on him to score match-winning goals. The comfort afforded him by the presence of Messi and Neymar next to him, and the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Rakitic behind him, allowed him to play with less pressure. The thing is, strikers always play with pressure, mostly created by their own maniacal desire to score. We saw this with Suarez at Liverpool, where — despite doing his utmost to be a mentor for the likes of Sturridge and Sterling — he could not help but express his dissatisfaction when they behaved selfishly in front of goal. But at Barcelona, Suarez started out almost shy to score himself, looking to find Messi and Neymar at every opportunity. Eventually, he settled into a rhythm where his game became defined by more than just scoring, and he laid on several crucial goals for team-mates (the assists to Neymar against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey, Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final come to mind; what stunning displays of selflessness). Watch the last one here: the epitome of mental equilibrium within a team ethos, and the resulting removal of a compulsion for individual recognition:

Going back to Coutinho, who has been one of the few positives to come from a dreadful campaign for Liverpool, I feel playing in a Barcelona team that wouldn’t depend only on him for creativity and goals would actually bring out the best in him. He would no longer make through balls just because they were there to be made. He would no longer take long shots in the hope that 1 in 5 beat the goalkeeper. He would learn to trust his team-mates, play a patient game, and pick the right opportunities. Utilizing his abilities sparingly yet effectively would be the key to him maturing into the player his talent deserves.

Coutinho has been lauded by Liverpool’s coaching staff, squad, and fans, but in truth, 9 goals and 5 assists in 43 club appearances in nothing to shout about. The Brazilian has become encumbered by Liverpool’s compulsive obsession over labeling an up-and-coming talent “the next Owen”, “the next Gerrard” or “the next Suarez”, or in this case, the next shining light at Anfield. This is not the kind of pressure Coutinho needs, not when the focus should be on how best to master his creative ability. He needs to stand by his talent and do what is best for his development. Unfortunately this means that it would be best if Coutinho left Liverpool this summer itself, for the Anfield club is a sinking ship. I believe Barcelona would be the perfect place for Coutinho to continue his development, not just because of the trophies on offer, but because he would truly fit into a system that would bring out the best of him on the pitch.

Labeling someone “the next Ronaldinho” or “the next Iniesta” can only do harm, and by no means should Coutinho be expected to replicate their success. However, he does fit the profile of a player who can step into their shoes and play in their roles for Barcelona. Barcelona has become the modern day home for magical Brazilian footballers, with Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Neymar immediately coming to mind. I would love to see a player as magical as Coutinho ply his trade at the Camp Nou.

Edit: Having watched a few more videos of Coutinho on YouTube, I am even more certain than before that Coutinho is meant for bigger things than a poor squad at a club in decline, and he owes it to himself to move.

Watch this video. Some absolutely stunning bits of talent, trickery, and vision.

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