‘Wonderkid Watch’, a new segment on this site, is committed to bringing the football world’s attention to the fine young talent gracing the sport in its own unique way. In this debut La Liga edition, Philippe Coutinho — a young Brazilian — is placed under the microscope.
Name & Age: Philippe Coutinho, 19
Club & Position: Espanyol (on loan from Inter Milan), Attacking Midfielder
There are so many things you can say to describe Philippe Coutinho, but the fact that he is Brazilian pretty much says it all. Flair, guile, pace — Coutinho has the basic qualities of your stereotypical Brazilian footballer. Admittedly, though, these qualities were seen intermittently over the years as he struggled to find his feet in Italy after his €4 million move from boyhood club, Vasco da Gama, back in 2008.
Before even making a senior appearance for the Brazilian club, Inter Milan pounced, and his fine showing at the South American Under-17 Football Championship the following year showed exactly why Inter were so keen to do a deal. Coutinho was 16 years old then, but because players of that age aren’t allowed to leave the country, he had to wait two years — loaned back to Vasco da Gama for that period — before he could officially join the Serie A giants.
Unfortunately, Coutinho arrived at the club at the wrong time. A crucial stage of his development was marred by poor tactics, manager sackings, and a subsequent nose-dive in club form — a terrible run of form which the club has yet to turn around. As a result, a player heralded by former manager, Rafael Benitez, and club chairman, Massimo Moratti, as ‘the future of Inter’, found himself wishing for a time machine. His nightmare ended on January 30th, 2012, when he was allowed to move on loan to Espanyol. Finally, the real Philippe Coutinho was able to strut his stuff, and strut it he has.
Coutinho made just 18 appearances for Inter in the 2 or so years he spent there, but he has already made almost half that amount (7) since moving to Spain almost a mere 2 months ago. In that time, he has notched 3 goals and an assist. As such, already, he is a fans’ favorite. But what exactly is so appealing about Coutinho?
— Direct Free-Kick Taking — One would expect a high level of technical quality from the average Brazilian; and Coutinho is no exception. He netted a beautiful curling free-kick against Fiorentina in May, 2011, and has generally proven himself to be a genuine, consistent threat from dead ball situations.
— Dribbling — This is also something we have come to expect from Brazilian footballers — a bottomless box of tricks. Since moving to Espanyol, Coutinho has managed a dribble completion rate of 1.9 per game.*
— Passing — Coutinho has great vision and uses the ball well in accordance with this. He has completed 6 out of his 8 attempted long balls and has completed 77.1% (205) out of his 256 attempted passes. Considering the fact that he features predominantly on the left side of attacking midfield, this is not bad at all.
— Long Range Shooting — It was established that Coutinho’s technique is magnificent. It should be of no surprise, then, that he can strike the ball sweetly from range. His efforts from outside the penalty area are generally on target. The fact that he is a consistent threat from dead ball situations evidences this. His goal against Racing Santander in Espanyol’s 3-1 home league win is further proof of his deadliness from outside the area. Cutting in from the left, one can expect him to score more just like that.
— Decision-making — Coutinho’s passing range and vision are generally quite good, but his decision-making in the final third needs a bit of fine-tuning. He only averages .9 key passes per game at Espanyol — strange considering the great vision he has. His desire to shoot from long range combined with the excitement of cutting in on his stronger foot explains this, however. When the space opens up for him, he just can’t resist the urge to go for goal. So rather than cut inside and pass to a team-mate, Coutinho is more likely to shoot.
His enthusiasm is encouraging, but his eye for goal sees him overlook players who may be in better scoring positions. There is the chance of the goalkeeper spilling a shot into the path of those better-placed players, but this shouldn’t be relied upon. So, Coutinho needs to polish up a bit on his decision-making to aid his team’s efficiency in the final third — and his own.
Philippe Coutinho enjoys cutting inside. It would make sense, then, to invert him. Espanyol manager, Mauricio Pochettino, is still undecided on this.
Coutinho has been deployed on the left side of attacking midfield just 3 times in his 8 appearances at the Barcelona club. Pochettino is obviously still experimenting with him to deduce his best position, but the decision seems an easy one to make. Coutinho has failed to impress when played in the hole off the main striker in Espanyol’s 4-2-3-1, and he has been inconsistent when played on the right.
The 3 times he played on the left side of attacking midfield produced remarkable results — he struck the post twice during the club’s 2-0 home loss to Real Zaragoza, scored a brace in the club’s 5-1 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano, and scored a goal and assisted another in the following game versus Racing Santander.
In the hole, Coutinho’s lack of key passes plays a huge part in his failure to adapt to the role. His tendency to shoot rather than make the final pass sees the creation of genuine goal-scoring opportunities for advanced team-mates severely limited. His effectiveness is just that as a result — limited. That would be particularly frustrating for a lone striker. Until his decision-making improves, he should not be deployed as a ‘No.10’.
Over on the right, Coutinho struggles because he isn’t a natural winger. The fact that his cross completion percentage stands at a mediocre 11.1 doesn’t help matters either. At the moment, he is torn between the roles of wide playmaker and inverted winger. Though, he currently plays like an inverted winger. Improvement in his decision-making would see him become a wide playmaker out on the left and, eventually, an effective ‘No.10’.
Estimated Transfer Value
Coutinho’s development suffered considerably at Inter Milan for the 2 or so years he spent there. Espanyol have been very impressed with him thus far and are keen on a permanent deal. The player himself wants to stay after coming to enjoy a new lease of life in Spain. Reasonably, the player should not cost much more than the €4 million Inter paid for him in 2008. Therefore, his value should be around €7 million.
Had it not been for those two years at Inter Milan, Philippe Coutinho may have been a household name by now. He has already been capped by Brazil — back in 2010 versus Iran in a friendly. This proves that he is indeed highly thought of.
At the moment, Claudio Ranieri’s use of the 4-1-2-1-2 / 4-3-1-2 formation means that there is no use for Coutinho at Inter. So, unless the ‘Tinkerman’ tinkers, Coutinho may well have to leave his parent club if he is to realize his true potential. At Espanyol, he is clearly benefiting from regular first-team action. There, the talent he undoubtedly possesses will be properly nurtured. Once that talent is honed, there’s no telling how far this young Brazilian can go. One thing is for sure though: the sky would be the limit.
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored