Philippe Coutinho: Barcelona’s heir to Andres Iniesta?
Barcelona’s record club signing arrives with high expectations, but do the Catalan giants plan for him to replace their captain on a regular basis?
When confirmation emerged of Barcelona and Liverpool agreeing a fee in the region of €145 million for Phillipe Coutinho, the initial reaction of many onlookers was one of surprise.
This did not stem from the hefty sum of money involved in taking the Brazilian player to the Camp Nou, but at the timing of the deal itself.
Why would the Merseyside club sanction the exit of a star player in the middle of the season, without a replacement? Why would Barca sign a player who could not be registered for the Champions League – a tournament which has become their primary focus for the second half of the campaign?
In attempting to answer these questions, we must take into account the context of the Catalan club’s summer, which contemporarily had seemed somewhat traumatic but six months on and, with the club well on course to complete a domestic double least, there has now been a large degree of vindication for their board’s approach.
Ernesto Valverde was appointed manager in the summer and quickly became aware this was an ageing squad badly in need of restructuring.
Of their regular starting XI the previous campaign, only three regulars – Neymar, Sergi Roberto and central defender Samuel Umtiti – were aged under 28.
The €40 million arrival of 29-year-old Paulinho did little to signal this was a club planning for the future, one which would not have the mercurial talent of Lionel Messi.
Neymar’s exit from the Catalan capital at the end of July in a world record £198 million deal sent shockwaves through the footballing world – and the corridors of the Camp Nou in particular – further inflating an already bloated transfer market.
Every club knew Barca had a great deal of money to invest and despite the purchase of Ousmane Dembele (for an initial £90 million), they still had a great deal of money to invest.
Perhaps the most pressing long-term issue was to find a suitable successor to Andres Iniesta, now 33.
A player who could link the play between deep-lying midfielders and an attacking trio, Iniesta is not a box-to-box midfielder in the mould of Paulinho or Ivan Rakitic but a player with peak technical ability who could dribble through opponents and pick out a teammate with ice-cold precision.
Coutinho, who had just turned 25 in June, was hand-picked to fill that role.
The benefits of the move are that it will provide the Brazilian with a suitable settling in period, allowing him to play both in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, whilst giving Iniesta more of a rest, keeping him fresh for Champions League outings.
Such is Barcelona’s lead at the league summit, it is a relatively tranquil settling in period for the player and expectations will not feel sharpened with the pressure of delivering big moments immediately.
The playmaker started Sunday’s league clash with Alaves and has appeared as a substitute in Copa del Rey ties against Espanyol and Valencia but has shown some signs of teething problems, naturally, with fitting into a well-oiled and functioning unit.
That these games have still be won and Coutinho has time to integrate without maximum pressure shows that completing his signing in January could earn the club long-term benefits.
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