It’s a strong bet that those trying to assess how Philippe Coutinho might flourish at Barcelona this season will first draw conclusions from his goal and assist in last season’s Copa del Rey final, the La Liga winners’ medal already in his possession and the absence of legend Andres Iniesta, whose “space” the Brazilian will be asked to occupy.
There’s another, probably more significant, way to assess Coutinho: his mentality, the greatest value he can now offer the Spanish champions.
In winning La Liga, Ernesto Valverde returned an almost flawless first year’s test score to his employers.
A league and cup Double, a 17-point cushion on rivals Real Madrid, 93 points, 99 league goals and within one match of an unbeaten season. Ultra-robust.
That single defeat, however, was mind-boggling.
Levante, Valencia’s “other” team, had spent most of the season as whipping boys, four games earlier had been fourth-bottom, were still in relegation trouble, and hadn’t registered a home win against Barca since 1964.
With a view to his overload of games and the upcoming World Cup, Valverde rested Lionel Messi altogether (an absolute rarity) and Levante reacted as if they’d been allowed to field three extra men.
They ripped the champions to shreds, scored five times and won a nine-goal thriller on an utterly remarkable night.
Almost as remarkable was Coutinho’s attitude and performance.
It wasn’t just that he scored the first hat trick of his Barcelona career. It was the way that he looked around, took stock, noticed that his teammates’ self-confidence was dipping in Messi’s absence and then stepped forward into the responsibility vacuum.
No elite athlete likes to think of a historic defeat to be his signature match.
And Coutinho should certainly produce many more moments like his best-supporting actor role to Iniesta’s “Oscar” quality adios in the Copa del Rey final. Those will, in due course, supersede his Levante performance.
Beyond Coutinho being a technically gifted, marketable and Nike-backed footballer, it’s that glimpse of someone willing to step up to the plate not simply in the permanent absence of Iniesta but when Messi is off form, rested or suspended that truly tantalises.
Last season’s 2-2 draw at Sevilla is another helpful example.
Messi started from the bench as Vincenzo Montella’s team treated Barca like rag dolls.
Sevilla’s 2-0 lead until the 88th minute looked not only unassailable but about three or four short of what they should have scored.
Coutinho fought for the team, found a foothold in the game and wound up setting up Messi’s brilliant 90th-minute equaliser.
One of the Blaugrana’s “to-do” tasks, which starts long before their genius actually retires or moves to play the winter of his career for the club he supports, Newell’s Old Boys, is to set the team up to not shrivel or be consumed with self-doubt without Messi and remain muscularly competitive.
Coutinho wasn’t able to play Champions League football for his new club last season and, let’s be clear, we are not talking about a soccer Messiah here.
This isn’t making a case that however strongly he plays, however much he finds a turbo-charge in his second season at the Camp Nou, Coutinho will either reach Messi levels or become a candidate to carry the team on his back.
However, remedies are required. Away to Roma, with a 4-1 lead, Valverde’s side crumbled, weren’t competitive, looked leaden and, frankly, didn’t seem to believe in their power to wrest the tie back into their control once Daniele De Rossi’s penalty made it 2-0 with half an hour remaining.
The same could be said about their performances away to Juventus and PSG in recent seasons.
Coutinho has the game, the mentality, the energy, the ambition and the magic to be part of the solution.
It’s quite an ask: “Start the process of showing how Barca can evade Messi dependence.”
But those who think that the simplistic equation is that Coutinho is here to just replace what Barca have lost with Iniesta miss two points.
One, Coutinho is the closest thing Barcelona have, or are going to get in the near future, to the style and importance of Messi’s goals and assists.
Moments of genius, vision and improvisation — moments that can break vital, rather than routine, contests.
Second, as good as Coutinho is he has not been trained in that Johan Cruyff/Pep Guardiola school of playing, and while he can adapt to it now, he’ll never master its intricacies to Iniesta’s level.
He’s an artist of moments, of impact, of invention — not control, tempo dictation and turning the difficult into the simple over and over again.
As recently as May, Coutinho confessed: “The way of playing at Barca is very different. Often you don’t know whether you have to accelerate the tempo or drop the rhythm; these are things you only learn with time, training and playing more games.”
Not for nothing did the 26-year-old admit, just after joining in January, “Ronaldinho has always been my idol.”
An idol of magic, of majesty, but a footballer of incredible match-changing moments, rather than a match-orchestrator who wields the baton and dictates everyone else’s rhythm.
His handling of Neymar’s very existence is another marker for what kind of guy Barcelona will have stepping up to the plate this season. The two of them are from the same year group in Brazil and although Coutinho was a star of futsal he’s constantly had to elbow the ultra flamboyant, ultra famous Neymar out of the spotlight in order to win appreciation and projection. Even since they were pre-teens.
So well did Coutinho achieve this, while still in Brazil and even before playing 11-a-side football, that Manchester City had him on their radar as a junior futsal superstar.
In fact fate has it that Barca, in Coutinho, have signed the anti-Neymar. The latter famously likes to live the high life, sometimes to his detriment, Coutinho (everyone will tell you) is deliriously happy if he’s left to train, enjoy his family, play and then savour more family time.
When he first had an abrupt January transfer, from Inter to Liverpool in 2013, his new employers fervently believed in his ability but hawkishly watched his attitude to arriving to a cold, alien climate where he didn’t speak the language. His training did the talking. “This is where I’m going to make my name,” his actions said, day in day out. So, albeit with advanced maturity and reputation, it has been at Barcelona.
After rejecting any idea that Neymar’s departure allowed him a direct “replacement” opportunity — “lots of people said that to me but I view it completely differently” — Coutinho lavished praise on Barcelona’s departed captain who’s currently turning on the style in Japan.
“Iniesta is a true football genius and we should all give thanks not only for what he has done but what he’s continuing to do,” Coutinho said.
But the Brazilian, wisely, never once suggested that he might try to emulate or even replicate Iniesta’s specific influence on this team. Instead he’s been doing something really smart.
Coutinho, those who are around the training ground will happily tell you, has been studying Iniesta microscopically from the moment he arrived nearly nine months ago until they parted, permanently, just before the World Cup.
Not someone who’s content to rely on the gifts he’s been given but intent on studying, developing and bettering himself, he decided that he was pursuing an accelerated master’s degree while Iniesta was still at the club. Not to mimic his playing style but to understand Barca’s playing schematics.
“At Liverpool I studied Steven Gerrard all the time and improved my game that way. Here I absorb all I can from Iniesta and Messi” is how Coutinho describes his ideology.
He’ll provide goals, thrills, assists, marketing, international profile and, it’s a fair bet, another trophy this season.
However, if he can live up to the promise of being one of the standard-bearers for the club who steps up to every test and every match when Messi is absent or under par, then Barcelona will have invested well. Perhaps even better than they imagined.