Coutinho, the small big signing

Manchester United was resoundingly trounced by Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, even if the 2-0 scoreline didn’t reflect the comfort and dominance that Spurs enjoyed.

On paper it was “Whoa baby,” as United rolled out an attacking lineup that included newbie Alexis Sanchez and still-marquee midfielder Paul Pogba. But in watching the match, it was clear who the better team was. Sanchez did his Sanchez things, and Pogba gonna Pogba. The latter was eventually pulled for the sin of being himself, even as it pointed out the danger of signing stars without a sufficient look at the player in context. Pogba isn’t a controller, isn’t a stable mid who will work in a two-man, disciplined midfield. That isn’t what he does. You don’t buy a Lamborghini to haul lumber.

Manchester United looked what it was, players trying to figure out how to play together. Spurs knew how to play together. None of the names in their attack, the buzz around Harry Kane notwithstanding, were as big as the names at United. But they knew how to play together. The result reflected that. Sanchez was the same player that he was at Barça, then at Arsenal — a player who makes it up as he goes along, but needs the ball to do that. Without the ball, without something to react to, he might as well be out for snacks.

When Barça signed Phillippe Coutinho, it was the perfect big signing in that Cooter is a player who fits into the team context. He is a big name, a starter at the storied Liverpool football club, and part of Tite’s XI for Brazil. But Coutinho is also a player who plays the game, rather than doing what he does and wanting the game to come meet him. It’s the difference between a Sanchez and a Coutinho, or a Pogba. All three players do what they do. The question is, in the context of how a team plays, what is needed, and is that player the right signing for your club?

When Sanchez was on the market, many culers were looking interested. Lord knows why, because he needs the ball too much. The reason Barça improved when Neymar left has nothing to do with personalities or tactics. It’s as simple as what a team needs to do, and how should the team do it. In the treble year, Neymar was the chaos with the Barça rock ‘n’ roll context. Opponents hadn’t yet figured out what to do against this attacking trio, so the balance was easy.

As opposing coaches began to figure it out, Neymar had to have more and more of the ball until suddenly, he was the attack starter, the catalyst, for a team that at one time thrived in the midfield. With the ball on the left all of the time, football ceased to become a team sport for Barça, becoming rather a series of 1-2s. When he left, the team rediscovered how to play as a unit, even as it was missing flair and skill on the ball.

In acquiring Coutinho, Barça got a player who is talented, but can also play team football within the Barça system. The reason he looks like he already fits in is because he is doing his Coutinho things at Barça, things that fit the approach of the tactics of Valverde. But instead of flicking a ball to Mane and Lallana, he’s flicking it to Messi or Iniesta, who view the game in a different template that meshes well with Coutinho’s skills. So rather than him having to pass and dance around, being a creator, he is part of a creative fabric.

If you sign Pogba, why do you sign Sanchez? Yes, it’s a big name, he is a buzzy, creative player. But now you have two undisciplined players, both of whom need the ball, in your XI.

Coutinho is assimilating so smoothly for the same reason that Dembele has not — aside from his injury-stunted bedding in process. At Dortmund, Dembele was in many ways a Neymar type, who got the ball and created in a system that was spontaneous, and thrived on space, the thing opponents are hell-bent on denying Barça. But he is at the right age to be able to adapt to the demands of a system that he has the skill set to play. But Dembele was an opportunity and potential transfer, where Coutinho is as much of a sure thing as a big transfer can be.

Samuel Umtiti assimilated well at Barça because he could do what he did at Lyon, but surrounded by better players who understand what he wants and prefers to do. It’s easy. Digne is wrestling with assimilation because he is coming into an unfamiliar system with a style not adapted to that system. Yerry Mina will do well for the same reason Pique and Umtiti did well when they returned — it’s a frolic with like minds. Vermamelen looked quite sound immediately for the same reason.

Scouting matters. Even with an expensive first-team transfer it isn’t as simple as going out to buy a star. When Marco Verratti was all the rage, and some were naysaying, it wasn’t because he isn’t talented. Rather it was because the question to be asked was did he have the skill set to assimilate at Barça. A much more exciting prospect in that midfield base role is Arthur, the player the club is negotiating with Gremio for. He has all the skills, even as Gremio is a different level of football than Barça. He has balance, vision, and quick feet. Even his running style, a sort of shuffle, mimics Iniesta and Messi. He runs with feet always ready to take a pass. Compare that with the high-kneed style of Pogba.

The quality of Arthur is such that, the Catalan fondness for a bargain aside, Barça should just pay the 50m Gremio is asking, which really isn’t that much in the context of what Arthur seems capable of, and move on. There again, he is a player suited for the system.

Mourinho at United wants to play a system that he doesn’t have the players for. Rashford, Martial, Pogba, Sanchez, Mata. It’s like he has a Guardiola team, but needs a more physical, coaching-ready group that will disappear into the game he wants his teams to play. Manchester United is signing Manchester United players. Names of the type that Alex Ferguson mostly avoided. Football is for stars now. High-profile teams need high-profile players, talents that set fanbases and marketing departments abuzz. Too often it seems that what is left more to chance are the hard questions: will this player work for the football that we want to play?

Meanwhile, in London, Arsenal have acquired Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan from, respectively, Dortmund and United. This move seems ideal because they are players who think on the move and are used to working as part of a team, part of structure. They aren’t star names, even as they are big players. Arsenal should regain some of that Arsenal quality they used to have that was lost, in the same way Barça got mired in possession for possession’s sake, sliding the ball around the pitch rather than doing something with it. Balance matters in transfers, team balance and talent balance. Because Barça has a style, even as individual coaches will make tactical adaptations within that style, it helps the club scout players. Certain players are ruled out because of style complexities. Arda Turan made more sense as a Barça signing, even as he didn’t work out, than Pogba. Coutinho makes perfect sense, which makes it a wonder that anyone is surprised at how good he looks.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. A great piece, Kxevin. I agree with just about everything here. I watched the whole game and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Spurs were completely on top and what’s more played some pretty attractive football. They passed around and through Man U at will. I’m impressed by the number of their players who were looking for passing angles forward through the lines. We need more of them.

    It was a toss up for me whether Sanchez or Pogba was worse but both should have come off. They were awful, Pogba because he can’t play a holding mid, Sanchez because he was like a little boy lost. I genuinely forgot he was playing at one point in the second half. Did he touch the ball maybe three or four times in that half ? I even felt sorry for Fellaini. I’m still not sure I buy the injury. Had a look at that bit again and didn’t see him signalling to the bench or even going into anything that remotely resembled a knee threatening situation. He went straight down the tunnel but was walking perfectly fine and none of the physics went with him. Yet he’s now out for 8 weeks ? Hmm, . . .

    Jose doesn’t have his troubles to seek. He’s gonna have forwards hacked off with the arrival of Sanchez meaning another one of them sees bench time, he has no midfield to speak of and possibly two of the poorest CBs in the EPL. Yet they are still second ?

    I was left wondering if I’ve been hasty ignoring Spurs as a threat in the CL. A great press and for 90 minutes. Some great players – for me Son, Eriksson, Kane but not so much Alli. Not totally convincing at the back although I like Vertonghen and Lloris.

    Anyway, what are we expecting tonight ? Hopefully a clean sheet above everything. Came across this video which purports to be identifying what the players and EV were saying during the match. Not sure who runs the site or how accurate it may be. Maybe Kxevin knows something about it ? Anyway, I liked the way Iniesta was portrayed as leading the revival – and also the confirmation that Pique lurks here although not fair to blame Digne for me. ( You’ll see what I mean ! )

  2. hi, firs time buzzer, just buzzing. great post kxevin, love the way mix your piece, its you’ve got a turn table skill when you write your piece.
    i just have one question. WHAT DOES EV HAVE AGAINST SEMEDO? like seriously any poetic analysis on this matter his not even in the team list for tonight’s game reeallly!!!

  3. I think EV just wants Semedo to focus on his defensive capabilities, in the game against Alaves he was nowhere to be found on that counter attack where we got scored on. I like Semedo, he’s quick, he’s tricky, but I want more end product, more crosses into the box, more shots against goal that was the beauty of Dani Alves. He could hurt you in some many ways. If it wasnt’ a pinpoint cross to Zlatan to down Madrid, it would be a pinpoint cross to Suarez to tie against Atletico, if he wasn’t crossing, he was shooting himself like he did against Madrid.

    Today was very tough win against a very compact Valencia side. I think the game at the Mestalla will be much more open. I hope we score early because then Valencia is going to lose their mind and focus because theyr gonna need 3 goals to go through.

  4. Sure, Semedo at the moment is not as good as Sergi Roberto at RB, and has work to do. But he is still a very promising player, and also the only other RB in the squad. If he isn’t even sitting on the bench as a backup for such a match, something else is going on.

    Valencia played defense like an old-school Italian side, or maybe Atleti. Two banks of four, with the two “offensive” players not far from them, most of the time nobody up front, playing for the draw or a defeat by one goal. I thought our team was doing very well, but in these games we have to be more effective with the few chances we get. Also, Sergi Roberto was very lucky not to be red-carded for his (accidental but far too dangerous) kick into a Valencia player with his studs up in the first half. But the goal we did create was absolutely magical – the Iniesta pass, Messi putting himself in the right spot to take over from Alba, then his incredibly perfect pass into the box, and the rocket-header from Suarez. I think any team that can do that on a regular basis – and this team can – deserves a lot of credit, results aside.

    They will have to come out and play at the Mestalla, and like you said it will be a very different game. More danger, and more opportunities.

    1. The Semedo situation is indeed a little puzzling, but with Vidal you have one other player who can slot in at RB, though. I just hope (and think) EV has a running discussion with Nelson regarding his development and minutes, and that it is about managing his development – parallel to the team’s needs – rather than the rumoured disciplinary/attitude issues. Semedo could be fantastic; confidence and growing understanding.

  5. Well, I think we’re surprised with Coutinho because he looks lika a La Masia graduate…majority of the mids Barca has brought in over the years, Gomes, Suarez Minor, Arda despite being technically gifted, failed to thrive. Cout on the other hand looks like an iteration of a young Iniesta.
    That aside, wonderful Article. Like you, I had my questions about Pog and Alexis. Let’s see if the ‘special one’ can do the impossible. I’ll be sure not to hold my breath though, lol.

  6. I liked him too this time. He looked a bit faster and a bit more interested in being part of the team’s actions. I am seeing a slight drop of pace in paulinho’s play and, also, i don’t understand why Vidal is still in the team while Semedo is benched. Not my business, as usual, it’s VV’s, i just hope that we won’t lose a brilliant fullback like Smedo appears to be, simply because he wasn’t played enough.

  7. I love watching Coutinho play. He reminds me of a right footed Messi. I get this same sense of security from him. He almost scored with that wonderful curling effort. I just hope he breaks his duck soon with one of his trademark long range strikes that he used to do at Liverpool.

    1. Yes, all his shooting efforts looked promising. It will come, and it will be helpful.. Though it is not easy breaking a bus even with this skill set, it adds a sense of insecurity to the defenders. Press, fall back…?

  8. Guess I won’t complain about teams giving up against RM but giving everything against us for a while. Great display from Levante, holding off RM who again give up two goals that could have been avoided with some better positioning in defense. Makes me doubly glad for the Umtiti – Piqué partnership.

  9. Yup, and my favourite Ramos had a hand in both ! 🙂

    First was obvious, just don’t know what he was thinking about. He not only tried to play offside when he’d just checked that the guy wasn’t off, he then managed to get turned inside out in the same move. Then finally crowns it all by positioning himself in the centre of the goal line right behind Navas ! That takes some doing. For the second rather than leaving the guy who made the pass to Casemiro, who he was heading towards anyway, he dashes out of the defence ( without a hope in hell of getting there in time) meaning that Varane has to cover the spare man so can’t provide cover for his RB.

    I remember a time when some Barca fans were also looking at Varane enviously . . . I’ll say it again. If we avoid folk dashing out of position we’ll not lose many goals. Btw, has Pique been made a captain yet after Masche’s departure ?

    1. Had a look again, Ramos indeed. But in general, it is a miracle how Levante put so few men forward (only one against two defenders for the first, for the second it’s two against four) yet the RM defense is unable to properly mark even those few. Makes me wonder how they are going to deal with a team like PSG, though I myself still haven’t decided who I would like to lose more in that tie.

  10. Strange line up today, no Messi, no Rakitic, no Alba…i guess Valverde is expecting a tough with a lot if duels game
    I hope nobody ends up injured, for us. Don’t care much about result.

    1. Will Valverde be the first Barca coach who can convince Messi to rest when it’s needed? I sure hope so!

  11. Great decision for me although I’m not sure it would have happened if it wasn’t likely to be a bloodbath. I was worried about Messi during the last game when he was feeling his knee for a few minutes after he retrieved the ball through the guy’s legs. He was bent over carefully feeling it so best not to take any chances. Just having him on the bench is probably still worth a goal as they’ll spend most of the time wondering if he has his top off yet. Also, a great chance to see Coutinho’s creative side working alongside Iniesta. I confess to worrying more about Alba’s absence although again the Chelsea game looms. Rakitic doesn’t bother me so much.

    Mind you, there’s no point in us saying to rest Messi if we turn up here at half time bemoaning the lack of creativity. It’ll be great if we get an early goal but might be keeping it a little tighter and trying to wear them out for the second half.

  12. Great opening gambit from the Sky commentator. ” Yes, Philippe Coutinho can do it in the EPL but can he do it on a rainy day in Barcelona ? “

  13. Good for now, with that kind of pitch we are controlling the game quite good, with some minor individual mistakes.
    A win here would be huge.

  14. Yeah, pitch can only get worse too. Ball sticking already. Not a day for risky passes across the back. Apparently they made no attempt to work on the pitch at half time either. Worried about Busi on a yellow. Not easy to ensure you avoid a second in these conditions. Good news is that it is pure hell chasing the ball on a day like this and having so little possession. Should tire after twenty.

    1. I don’t worry about cards but about serious injuries. This game looks like a nightmare for players. Incredible how Iniesta can still do his thing under these conditions.

  15. Because it’s Pique, because it’s Espanyol, that is as sweet a goal as Barcelona will perhaps score this entire season.

  16. Of course, hatered towards these motherfuckers just keeps growing year after year.
    Same level as RM.

  17. That was a terrific watch even as the pitch was unplayable most of the second half. The only quibble Id have with us that we tried to play too much football in impossible conditions. One of the few times you’ll catch me advocating the hoof up the park.

    Just couldn’t take my eyes off Iniesta. There is no way way you can move with the ball like that through water. Topped off by Pique silencing a rather horrible crowd . . . And team ! Have to admit I winced as he put finger to lips but but enjoyed it nonetheless after everything he goes through against them. Did well to shepherd Umtiti away at the end. He was raging, not sure about what. Couldn’t have just been the coming together in the box could it ?

    Anyway, no injuries and no red cards plus still undefeated . Can’t be bad.

    1. Racial slurs, apparently. Not the first time, either, from this team and stadium. Rivalry, fine. But this is pathetic.

  18. Thanks. Thought it might be something like that. Shame for Umtiti, thought he had a great game given the conditions. With this and the chants about Pique’s wife and kids this mob are out of control. Mind you, Pique didn’t miss the target in his post match comments. I’m not on the scene but it sounds as though he puts some of the blame on the Chinese owners for not even trying to stamp it out. Not sure he shouldn’t let it lie now. On the other hand I wont be holding my breath for much of this to appear in the ref’s report.

    1. The racial slurs are the biggest issue, at least for me. It just goes to show how eradicating racism has atill a long way to go. Shame for the Espanyol fans and, apparently, some Espanyol players doing that. Of course, singling out the entire Espanyol fanbase is wrong as well, surely most of them are OK people, but those racist slurs didn’t just come from an “insignificant minority” from them. Obviously, I think that most of that hatred stems from desperation and rage from seeing how Barça thrashes their team on a constant basis. Still, no justification for that. None whatsoever.

      As for Pique: again, those fans did indeed cross the line when they start chanting against his wife and kids, that’s just spiteful… however (and this is gonna be an unpopular opinion among Barça fans) I also think that Pique kinda “begs” for that type of hate and spite towards him… he is not exactly a humble person like Iniesta or Messi and likes to stir controversy every now and then…

  19. What an end to a horrible match. Have never been so happy for Pique :)-

    I was desperately hoping our players would, for once, hoof the ball up in that pitch, but them unsuccessfully still trying to ground the ball made me think if they were on their right minds, sorry. Even amidst all this Iniesta and Messi- no problems.. strange beings they are..

    Should be the most valuable 1 point we earn this season..

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