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.