Wow. The brain struggles to process it all but sometimes the simplest reactions are the best.
The Phillippe Coutinho deal is done, for an eye-goggling sum of 160m or so, with a 400m clause. Dembele didn’t even have a full season as the most expensive Barça transfer ever before being supplanted by the 25-year-old Brazilian, who will be presented next week.
There is rage among the Liverpool fanbase, and curious reticence among the Barça fanbase, for a number of fascinating reasons. It seems like only yesterday that the fees for Neymar, forced out of a recalcitrant board by a renegade soci, made everyone kinda shocked. Ninety-plus million. Wow. In the here and now of a market gone berserk, it makes Neymar seem a comparative bargain.
Here is the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, via journalist Melissa Reddy, on Coutinho:
“I can tell Liverpool supporters that we, as a club, have done everything within our means to convince Phil that remaining part of LFC was as attractive as moving to Spain, but he is 100% certain his future, and that of his family, belongs at Barca. It’s his dream
“Philippe has made a fantastic contribution to this club over his five years of service and as disappointed as we are he doesn’t want to extend that, the relationship we have for him means with a heavy heart we wish him well”
Lest you get ready to shed a tear for Liverpool, they did fantastic business, turning a 10m investement into 160m in a few years. Yes, it is difficult to replace a player such a Coutinho. But with the talent Klopp has at his disposal, not to mention the pigpile of cash Liverpool now has, options abound. This is one of those situations where, prima facie, everybody wins — except the people who bought Coutinho Liverpool shirts this year. But if they did that after last summer, that kind of faith deserves a hug. (Note that the video Coutinho displayed on his Facebook page was done in August. Yup.)
Meanwhile, there are lots of questions, starting with why, and why now?
Why is simple: The team needs quality, world-class quality, in midfield, and not tomorrow. Right now. Valverde has resurrected his form of Barça football, an ideal that relies heavily — too heavily, on Andres Iniesta, who aging legs are carrying the hopes and dreams of a club and its supporters.
While you don’t replace an Iniesta, you can understand some of the things that he does and attempt to find some way to replicate some of them. The other difficulty was the departure of Neymar and the loss of that creative force on the left side of the pitch.
Coutinho doesn’t have Barça DNA, as we have seen some people suggest. But what he does have is the ability to work in the slivers of space that exist in opponent defensive structures. He slithers and slides about, working 1-2s, making one-touch passes and deft movements of the precise kind that have been missing in the absence of Neymar. Coutinho can play in midfield or on the wing. He has a shot from distance, and is possessed of the typical Brazilian set of talents with the ball at his feet.
Why now? Barça have a nine-point lead in La Liga, are in the knockout stages of Champions League and the Copa del Rey is in play. As the team gets deeper into those competitions, a grim reality will rear its head: Iniesta can’t play all the time, so what do you do? The arrival of Coutinho right now, as Atleti has been kick-started into rambunctious life with the arrival of Diego Costa, means that Iniesta can get rest in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Coutinho is cup-tied, so he can’t play in Champions League. But Iniesta can, with fresh legs and mind, no longer having to help the team continue its unbeaten (?!) run this season.
In Liga and Copa, Coutinho will also make Messi better, as the one thing that has been missing for Messi is a playmate. He and Neymar were capable of astonishing things, flights of fancy on the dead run. With Iniesta in midfield being a grownup, and Dembele just coming back to his role in the team, defenses have had the liberty to play Messi differently, as the sole option. That changes with Coutinho, as Messi has a playmate again.
Life also improves for Suarez, as Coutinho’s ability to score from just outside the box in means that when he gets the ball, defenders can’t say, “Hmph. Cute.” As they do with Busquets, Rakitic and Paulinho. Goals should result from Coutinho’s presence, and not only for the Brazilian.
The why now is because the team and club clearly feel like they have a shot at accomplishing something extraordinary this season. In the past seasons, fatigue and the attendant diminution of concentration and ultimate quality have been the biggest bugbears. Having a player such as Coutinho, a player who can be rolled out with confidence against the biggest opponents, gives Valverde a liberty that he didn’t have before the signing was announced.
That said, Coutinho will have the same pressure and difficultites that Dembele has in that the price tag will make supporters expect more than the Brazilian will be able to give at first. Thierry Henry, one of the best attackers to ever play the game, took a season to assimilate at Barça. Andre Gomes is as festooned with talent as most midfielders around, and it took him a season. To expect Coutinho to slot right in and be as good as he is going to be in a season is misguided in the extreme.
Structurally, this is the potential future for FC Barcelona, a team spoiled by having an exceptional class come from its academy, to form the core of a team that swept all before it. As that talent ages, there isn’t talent coming up to replace it. Not of the same quality. This means that like other teams, Barça must head for the market to buy the kinds of players it needs to sustain the excellence the club and its supporters have come to expect.
There is no shame in that. Notions of “mes que” ness aren’t damaged, nor does it mean the club might as well just disband its storied La Masia. There are talents coming from that pipeline, but only the most foolish would believe that there are more Messis, Xavi, Iniestas, Puyols, Piques and Valdeses waiting in the nursery. There is a gap in the develpment chain between a player such as Alena, who is almost ready, and the next talents knocking at the door. That gap must be bridged, and now.
Barça also had to get younger. Its signings, in Alcacer, Semedo, Umtiti, Ter Stegen, Gomes, Dembele, Coutinho and Yerry Mina are all young. This is important for a team with an aging core. Supplant these with the likes of talents coming from B such as Arnaiz, and Alena will will be promoted in summer, and you have an essential infusion of youth.
Supporters like to yell and scream about the board and the technical staff. But credit where credit is due. Some exceptionally smart moves have been made. Bargains have been grabbed when possible, leaving the team with the freedom to splash on big purchases such as Dembele and Coutinho.
And by the way …
Colombian CB Yerry Mina also became official on Super Saturday. Speaking of getting young, the defender capable of scoring like a forward is 6’5″ tall, runs like a gazelle and is comfortable with the ball at feet. He comes to the club from Palmeiras for the sum (total) of 12m, 9m of which was already on the books with the club exercised its right to the player.
A lot of you don’t know him, but you will soon. He is a fantastic talent, easily one of the top young CBs in the game. He’s a bit raw, but if he develops as he has the potential to, Umtiti won’t be the only bargain prowling that back line. Tall Umtiti isn’t the correct way to describe Mina, but he is a hybrid of Pique and Umtiti in his play. He is also strong in the air (not just because of his size), and a fine scorer of headed goals.
It seems bonkers that on the same Saturday, and early in the winter window, Barça landed two players who are fixtures for their national teams and world-class talents, but yeah … that happened.
On Saturday, in the Las Palmas match against Eibar, Sergi Samper suffered a horrific injury when his cleats caught in the turf and his leg folded under him. Reports are still preliminary so I don’t want to speculate, but have heard broken foot and damaged knee. If it wasn’t for awful luck, Samper wouldn’t have any at all. It seems like just when he starts to get playing time, something happens.
Las Palmas brought in Paco Jemez, who wasted no time in making Samper part of the XI. The Masia product started consecutive matches for the team he joined on loan in the summer, and looked very good against Eibar. His going off was the turning point in the match, it can safely be said.
So as you wonder about futures and where expensive players are going to play, spare a thought for the hard-luck man from La Masia, felled again by an injury that will almost surely spell the end of this season for him, and possibly stretch into some of next season.
Football is a cruel game. On a day where one player gets his dream move to Barça, another might have had his hopes of starting and starring for his boyhood club shattered by a freak occurrence. Like Victor Valdes, who retired this week, another player whose career was defined by a random injury from a move performned thousands of times before, Samper deserves better.
Anims, Mr. Smooth.