Barcelona and Real Madrid. For players across the world, the day you sign for either of these clubs is the fulfilment of a life dream, years of sacrifice, practice and application is rewarded with a contract with these two institutions.
Since the mid-1990s with the introduction of Bosman, squads now comprising players globally and media attention and scrutiny and demand placed on players now at its highest ever level, this dream of playing for either Blaugrana or Los Blancos can be a nightmare if a player is either not performing or has been frozen out.
Presently at both clubs, for two players, this very scenario has occurred.
Philippe Coutinho – Nightmare at Camp Nou
Upon agreeing to sign for FC Barcelona from Liverpool on 06th Jan 2018 for a fee which with future add-ons could potentially take the deal up to GBP 142 million, the capture of Philippe Coutinho was the culmination of a pursuit which saw three reported failed transfer bids and a rejected transfer request from Coutinho in the summer of 2017.
In Coutinho’s first five months at Barca, things had shown signs of promise, according to Transfermarkt, Coutinho in 17/18 for Barca recorded respectable stats of eight goals and five assists in 18 La Liga games.
High expectations were therefore placed on Coutinho to have a fine 2018/19 in his first full season in Catalonia.
However, the very opposite has occurred, Coutinho’s stats for Barcelona so far in 2018/19 read just four goals and two assists in 20 La Liga appearances so far and only one goal and three assists in six UEFA Champions League games.
Only in the Copa del Rey with three goals in five games could it be argued Coutinho has performed to his potential so far this season (one).
So just what has happened to Coutinho and why is his dream move to Barcelona which both he and the club pushed so hard for quickly turning into a nightmare?
The expensive square peg in a team of round holes
The first sign that a player’s spell at either club on the El Clasico divide is turning into a nightmare is when they begin to receive criticism from the press and when this criticism comes, it is often vicious and pulls no punches.
After the first leg of Barca’s Copa del Rey semi-final against Real which ended 1-1, Lluis Mascaro writing in popular Catalan daily Sport, wrote a damning assessment of Coutinho’s performance.
Mascaro stated that the Brazilian put in one of his poorest performances in a Barcelona shirt, which was something considering it has been at a poor level for many months and that in his 60 minutes on the field, before being substituted by Messi, Coutinho did not get into the game at all (two).
It is difficult to disagree with Mascaro after watching the game, Coutinho was simply anonymous, the only noteworthy time you heard his name mentioned was in the second half when the Brazilian launched two shots, one of which went comfortably over the bar and another which was hit straight at Real keeper Keylor Navas.
After one of his better performances in a Barca shirt in the 6-1 second leg victory of the Copa del Rey semi final against Sevilla, Coutinho now is essentially back at square one after last night’s poor display.
So why is Coutinho struggling? Cast your mind back to the summer of 2017 once again. Barca failed with three bids for Coutinho and with the need for an imminent Neymar replacement shelled out a reported fee of EUR 105 million for Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund.
The then 20-year-old came to Catalonia with a huge reputation, however, the Frenchman’s first season was a nightmare due to frequent injuries.
However, Dembele in a similar number of appearances to Coutinho this season so far has delivered more impressive statistics with eight goals and three assists in 19 La Liga games. Crucially, Dembele gives Barca’s attacking front three something different.
Dembele sometimes loses the ball in attacks, however, alongside this, there are moments of genius, furthermore, his dribbling ability at pace gives opposing defenders nightmares.
The second reason for Coutinho’s struggles is that he could be viewed as too similar to Lionel Messi.
Going back to Mascaro’s article, the Sport writer referenced Coutinho as needing to assume the capabilities of Messi against Real whilst the Argentine was only named on the bench and highlighted that he failed to perform this task.
Messi is a special once-in-a-generation player, Coutinho does show a few glimpses of Messi, however, there is understandably not that same brilliant consistency or accuracy of dribbles and finishing.
Another problem Coutinho has struggled with is fitting into the Barcelona ethos when off-the-ball. Two weeks ago during Barca’s 2-0 away victory against Girona, Coutinho when losing the ball on several occasions appeared reluctant to put within reason off-the-ball workrate to attempt to win back possession.
During this game, whilst on commentary for La Liga TV, Scottish football journalist and Barcelona expert Graham Hunter noted this from Coutinho.
Hunter also pointed out that Messi is a player who is absolved from doing off-the ball defensive duties understandably because of his sheer talent.
On the day Coutinho was playing in the same team as Messi, which often involves all other parties putting in off-the-ball work within reason to win back possession.
Furthermore, Coutinho’s performance and day only got worse as he missed two one-on-one chances with the Girona goalkeeper.
Already surplus to requirements?
Despite Barca coach Ernesto Valverde giving Coutinho as many opportunities as possible to prove his worth, already one gets the impression Coutinho is on borrowed time at Barca.
The aforementioned Dembele missed the Cup game against Real due to injury, however, when back fit, one would expect Dembele to return back to the starting eleven and Coutinho is the player who will likely make way.
Another further push to the exit door was confirmed against Real with the performance of Brazilian winger Malcolm.
A summer signing from Bordeaux, Malcolm has so far not been given too many opportunities to impress at Camp Nou due to sheer competition for places.
Yet, the Brazilian performed superbly against Real, his combination play with right back Nelson Semedo and Luis Suarez was exceptional all game.
Furthermore, the Brazilian scored a well-taken goal to round off a fine display and was willing when required to track back and perform defensive duties.
Finally, in 21-year-old Carles Alena, Barcelona have at their disposal, one of the most promising youngsters to emerge through La Masia since the Golden Generation of the early to mid-2000s and Valverde has not hesitated to give Alena minutes this season.
In essence, Coutinho faces a real fight to turn things around and salvage his Barca career.
Isco – The Invisible Man
However, if Coutinho is struggling to make an impression despite being given plentiful minutes by his coach, at least he is getting the chance to prove the doubters wrong, the same cannot be said on the other side of the El Clasico divide at Real Madrid with their attacking midfielder Isco.
Since signing for Los Blancos from Malaga in the summer of 2013 for a fee of EUR 30 million, the attacking midfielder has been a key part of Real’s domestic and European success over the past five seasons averaging over 30 appearances per season.
However, this season has been different for the 26 year-old Spaniard, Isco had a disrupted early start to the season and missed three La Liga matches against Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Alaves due to an appendicitis injury.
However, shortly after returning from this injury, Isco played in a game where he completed his only 90 minutes without being substituted this season so far in the league, the Round 10 La Liga 5-1 away drubbing Real suffered against Barca.
This was a watershed moment for Real this season, it was Julen Lopetegui’s final game in charge of Los Blancos before he was dismissed and replaced with Real Madrid Castilla manager Santiago Solari on a contract until 2021.
If the humiliation against Barca in that Round 10 La Liga match was a significant moment for Real, it has also been a significant moment in Isco’s season too.
Since Solari was appointed firstly as interim and then permanent coach of Los Blancos, Isco has only played 90 minutes for Real on two occasions, the second leg of their Copa del Rey last 32 tie against third tier UD Melilla and their final dead-rubber Champions League group stage game 3-0 home loss against Russian outfit CSKA Moscow.
In La Liga matches since Solari’s arrival the most minutes Isco has ever played for Real was 45 against Villarreal in Round 17.
More telling is that on six occasions since Solari’s appointment, Isco has failed to even get off the substitutes bench with the most recent example being against Barca in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semi final (three).
Vinicius, Vidi, Vici – The brilliant young Brazilian who has conquered a first team place at Real
Part of the reason for Isco being vanquished to the substitutes bench is the emergence of 18-year-old Brazilian wonderkid Vinicius Jr at Los Blancos.
Signed on a pre-contract agreement in 2017 from Flamengo for a transfer fee of around EUR 46 million when just 16, Vinicius eventually joined Real this summer and he has performed so well that he has established himself as a first team starter for the club.
Vinicius has played on the wings for Real, but looks versatile enough to also potentially in the future play as a second striker or attacking midfielder in a central role owing to his frequent tendency to cut inside after making dribbling runs.
Crucially as well, Vinicius also carries out important off the ball tracking back duties for Real.
Solari might have been a flamboyant winger for Los Blancos in his playing days, yet based on what we have seen from him as a manager so far, whilst Real’s style is attacking, it is structured cautious attacking and it requires a large amount of off the ball workrate when out of possession.
It is for this reason why Vinicius and also fellow wide player Lucas Vasquez have found favour under him.
A slightly more advanced role for Modric
Another thing counting against Isco’s inclusion at the moment is Luka Modric being given more of an advanced role in Real’s central midfield three.
It is easy to remember that prior to signing for Real, when the brilliant Croat was at Tottenham, he was primarily deployed in an attacking midfield role.
Over the last few years we have been used to seeing Modric deployed in a deeper midfield playmaking role.
However, Solari has remembered Modric’s days in a more advanced role and has deployed him there frequently this season.
Modric also owing to his experience of playing a deep-lying midfield role also will contribute more off-the-ball work-rate than Isco.
Solari is increasingly looking more likely to stay beyond the summer – further damaging Isco’s prospects
On commentary of Real’s win away against Espanyol a few weeks ago for La Liga TV, Spanish football expert Guillem Balague stated when asked about Isco’s situation as a bench warmer that Isco’s plan was to wait until the summer and see what situation unfolded with the managerial position at Real.
A few weeks ago there would have been some merit in this potential strategy from Isco.
However, with every passing moment, Solari is looking more likely to continue in the Real job beyond the summer.
Evidently, this is terrible news for Isco, whilst undoubtedly a talented player, every different manager will have a different opinion about players and it is clear that Solari who has barely used Isco since taking the reigns at Real doesn’t fancy him.
The improvement in Real’s performances and more impressive results since Solari has taken over plus his status as a former fan favourite amongst Los Blancos supporters has meant any criticism of Solari’s benching of Isco has been muted.
Solari has also shown so far that he will put the team first over an individual’s place in the team no matter who they are, Gareth Bale was left on the bench against Real in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal as an example.
Marcelo has been justifiably dropped on a few occasions this season and speculation has arose of a potential summer exit for the long-serving left back.
If Solari was to stay beyond the summer at Real, Isco then is faced with the reality that he must leave Real in the summer window.
A lack of playing time at Real will not impress Spanish national team coach Luis Enrique in the build up to Euro 2020 next summer.
On both sides of the El Clasico divide, both Philippe Coutinho and Isco are having a tough time of things at the moment.
With both players aged 26 and currently either not performing or not featuring for their current employers, developments over the upcoming months will make for fascinating viewing.
It may be that both Coutinho and Isco will need to find new clubs over the summer to revive their careers.
One – Transfermarkt