A Barcelona delegation is reportedly in Liverpool on Tuesday, with Barca’s chief executive, Oscar Grau, and others having flown to England on Monday night. According to ESPN Deportes’ Jordi Blanco, the two sides have agreed to a base fee of $106 million that could rise to $141 million based on various incentives. Barcelona reportedly hopes to close the deal this week.
If the bonuses are triggered, Coutinho would become the second-most expensive player ever, behind Neymar, and would be tasked with filling some portion of the void that his compatriot left behind at Camp Nou. The two are very different players, but Coutinho could come close to replicating Neymar’s production if Barcelona can bring the best of his bubbly attacking talents to the surface.
To be clear, the deal is not done. Standard reservations about reports on transfer dealings apply, and the Coutinho reports have, of course, been refuted. Even if the deal doesn’t materialize, though, it seems clear that Barcelona has hand-picked Coutinho as its first post-Neymar target.
So how exactly would Coutinho fit?
Would Coutinho be a direct replacement for Neymar?
Neymar’s skill set is unique. It will not be replicated. But Coutinho brings his own distinct set of attacking tools to the table, and those tools could be used primarily on the left wing, just as Neymar’s were. Here’s a mock-up of one potential Barcelona lineup, in which Coutinho essentially slots in to Neymar’s position, Messi drifts in a free role off the right, and Coutinho, slightly deeper, does similarly off the left:
Much of the structural attacking width here would be provided by the fullbacks. But the front three, working in conjunction with Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic from midfield, would be incredibly fluid.
The major positional difference between Left Winger Neymar and Left Winger Philippe Coutinho is that the former is far more comfortable playing higher up the field, even sometimes as a striker, whereas the latter is first and foremost a midfielder. Neymar at times would effectively be Luis Suarez’s partner in a front two, with Messi in the hole behind them. With Coutinho, that configuration is not an option.
But if new boss Ernesto Valverde feels comfortable pushing Messi up top closer to Suarez, Coutinho could slide underneath the two, creating more of a 4-3-1-2 shape:
Perhaps Coutinho’s best quality is his ability to function in tight spaces. If he’s drifting out to the left touchline too often, that ability isn’t maximized. That’s why the 4-3-1-2 shape might make sense.
But it also might not be ideal for Messi, and that’s likely to be Valverde’s primary consideration. Plus, Coutinho could find a home as the leftmost player in an attacking three and still find plenty of time to float centrally and have success.
Or is Coutinho the heir to Iniesta?
Iniesta is 33. He’s a Barcelona legend, but started just 13 games in La Liga last season. His effectiveness has ebbed.
Coutinho is comfortable playing both wide and centrally, and in more attacking lineups, especially against lesser opponents, he could be the farthest forward in a midfield three — the same role Iniesta has often occupied for the Blaugranas.
That would leave the Neymar-sized hole on the left wing unfilled. But there are separate, unverified reports that Barcelona are pushing for a deal for 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger Ousmane Dembele. (Dembele, coincidentally, has seemingly removed references to Borussia Dortmund from his social media pages.)
Barcelona still has over $100 million worth of checks to write, and could use the money to shop for a more proper left winger who could better emulate Neymar’s ability to drive into the box. That would free up Coutinho to take up a more traditional attacking midfield position in a 4-3-3:
Such a lineup would have defensive shortcomings. But it could be the best way to make up for what Neymar offered going forward.
Can Barcelona fix Coutinho’s biggest flaw?
Coutinho is a wonderful player, with extensive passing range and a bag full of feints, ball skills and dribbling tricks. He’s extremely quick, and shifts his body weight extremely well to slither away from defenders.
However, he has one glaring, maddening flaw: His insistence on opening up space for himself not to pick a pass, and not to drive at center backs, but rather to shoot from 25-plus yards out.
Coutinho, on countless occasions, has wriggled free 25-35 yards from goal, faced a defender, dropped his shoulder, pushed the ball away to his right side, and let fly. The tendency produces wondergoals. It’s also inefficient. Coutinho can strike a ball extraordinarily well. But he’d often be better off dipping into his creative expertise and trying to pick out an incisive pass.
That’s the thing with Coutinho: It’s not like he doesn’t have the passing ability (or the shooting ability). It’s the decision-making that’s the issue. The big question, then: Can Barcelona fix that decision-making?
It very well could. Think of a player like Iniesta, whose place in the team Coutinho could be taking. How often have you seen him line up a 30-yard rocket? Compare that with the amount of times you’ve seen him slide a killer throughball from the top of the box into a more dangerous area. The latter count is a lot higher.
Coutinho may or may not already be world class. If he can adopt that very specific aspect of Iniesta’s game — of Iniesta’s soccer brain — he can truly become one of the best attacking players in the world. And, if he does in fact complete his transfer to Barcelona, he can validate the lucrative terms of the deal.
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