This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, but I really love Phillippe Coutinho.
I mean, what isn’t there to love? There’s the way he controls a ball, all deft little touches with the instep, luring defenders into a
challenge and then, at the last millisecond, as their lunge gets inches away from the ball, moving it out of the way with a taunting little flick that would have Phil Neville in a rage. There’s the way he runs with the ball, too, all feints and half-twists, defenders going one way then the other only to find the little Brazilian has picked a third direction no-one else was even aware of, bursting away with his new-found acceleration whilst their heads are still fixed on where he was a second ago, and his passing, the delicate stroked balls into space, the audacious overhead kicks or first-time reverse passes. There’s his patented high-energy nuisance-tackling, like a Yorkshire Terrier snapping at the postman’s ankles before running off with the mailbag.
And, most of all, there’s the fact that he couldn’t score in the seediest, most depraved of brothels.
It might seem a strange thing to like about a player, and I’ll admit it isn’t 100% accurate; he does, occasionally, score goals, important ones, like the one against Man City last year (as far as I’m concerned, the last Liverpool game of the season). It can also be incredibly frustrating at times, don’t get me wrong; with Daniel Sturridge missing, Lambert ageing, Balotelli being… well, Ballotelli, and Borini having no talent, Liverpool have struggled for goals this year, and it would have been nice, in a way, for Coutinho to have scored a few more (though he isn’t entirely to blame, is he, Jordan?). But it’s still true. I like that he doesn’t score, and here’s why.
In the modern football game, results are everything. As Jose “Satan Incarnate” Mourinho has grasped so completely, if you win, the fans love you, no matter how insipid/downright immoral your team might be; if you lose, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made women weep and men orgasm with your style of play, there’s talk of “crisis” and “sackings” and “who’s going to clean all the semen up, then?” It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, really; you win, or you get sacked, no matter how much everyone likes you.
But, surely football is about more than that? After all, I can go down the pub and watch old men play tiddlywinks (yes, my local is stuck in the 1930s), and one will win and one will lose… but football should be, indeed is, something more. It’s not called the “beautiful game” for nothing; there is beauty in the artistry of a well-constructed move, a daring bit of skill, even in a thumping header or perfectly executed tackle. Focusing on success at the expense of all else is… well, it’s wrong, like chopping off (SPOILERS) Ned’s head.
Which brings me back to Coutinho. He has no end product at all, and that’s wonderful, because it means you can focus on the beauty of everything else in his game without having to worry about the success at the end of it. When he cocks back his leg to shoot, defenders flailing all around him, the whites of the goalie’s eyes staring terrified at the ball… you know he won’t score, so you can just switch your brain off and focus on how he got into the position in the first place, how beautiful his first touch and first piece of skill was.
The best example of this comes from the recent Chelsea game, or as I prefer to think if it the alternative ending of the Lord of the Rings where Sauron wins. Coutinho picked up the ball midway inside the Chelsea half, Mikel in his face and Matic lurking just behind. One insouciant first touch, a quick hip-shuffle and, somehow, he was past the two midfielders, past Cahill and Terry behind them, and clean through on goal, Chelsea players gawping in amazement and terror. Like the hero in a Western, Coutinho eyed up his opponent, Thibault Courtois; stared him down, floodlights above glowing like High Noon sun, confident grin just about to appear on his face as he saw the goalkeeper make a tiny move and adjusted his finish to compensate… and clanked it off the Belgian’s shins.
But that last bit didn’t matter. It was what went before-the previous hour of the Western, if you will, Ned’s unveiling of the Lannister secret, Frodo and Sam’s definitely-not-homoerotic journey… that’s what mattered. That’s what we’re missing, in this
success-driven football culture; and that is what Coutinho (now that Joan Riquelme, the fabulous Argentinian, has retired) is the only player I know to remind us of.
It’s not about the goals; it’s about how you reach them.
I’m still glad Sturridge is back, though.