La Liga Lowdown
When Less Is More: Barcelona’s Quest To Replace Andrés Iniesta
Written by Ruairidh Barlow
Andrés Iniesta’s final final at Barcelona finished 5-0 and the performances from both Barcelona and Iniesta were absurd. To toast a glittering career in such a manner seemed far too fairy-tale to be true. He was the star of the show in every aspect. Twisting, turning, pausing; dissecting the defence. Iniesta played every Hollywood pass, passed up a clear assist to instead dummy the keeper then score himself and even got booked for dissent. So many of the extravagances he had denied himself for the most part of his career, he indulged in.
Content with being the understated hero, Iniesta only called on his box of tricks when necessary. In his book about Barcelona, Graham Hunter titled Iniesta’s chapter, ‘The Solutions Man’.
The ending to his Barcelona career seemed apt. The Champions League exit in Rome was a pity, but it was an aberration of football (or so we thought). That match would sting for a while. Still, Iniesta could console himself with a domestic double. While it was clear that he would be missed, that there would never be another like him, most agreed that it was a fine time to bow out.
After all, his replacement was already there. Money can’t buy you another Iniesta but a lot of it can buy you Philippe Coutinho. The then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu pursued him like an over-eager suitor. Too keen, he threw money at Liverpool until they could no longer refuse. It was never a recipe for a happy marriage. In fact, Barcelona have never thrown more money at a problem in their history. Eventually their chasing bore fruit and Coutinho arrived in January, six months before Iniesta’s departure.
The Brazilian had been earmarked as the man to occupy his position. Certainly, there is a verve about Coutinho. He boasts supreme technical skill and the ability to solve matches in an instant, although his preferred method of doing so was a curling shot rather than a pass. Rarely has one player been so associated with a particular manoeuvre, as Coutinho is with the whipped shot from the left side into the corner.
Yet the warning signs that Coutinho perhaps wasn’t the person to fill that void were already there. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool continued to climb towards the peak of football when the Brazilian was missing even before his exit to Barcelona. His absence was barely noted thereafter either - some would even argue that Liverpool’s ascent accelerated. Maybe he wasn’t as crucial as previously thought. With hindsight, it’s clear he was an accessory to, rather than a cog within, the Merseyside machine.
On the other side of the Bay of Biscay, Ernesto Valverde played Coutinho on the left of a front three in the early days, or at times in midfield when Iniesta wasn’t there. He started reasonably well in that role, if never quite looking natural. Unavailable for the Champions League, his domestic performance was enough to bring optimism for the coming season. With Iniesta now departed, Valverde gave it a go with Coutinho deeper. Yet if Coutinho never convinced in midfield, Valverde never looked convinced that it would work and by October, the plan was almost scrapped entirely. Coutinho had never actually played in a midfield three on a regular basis either.
Ironically, it would be Coutinho’s trademark goal which would almost seal his fall from grace. Receiving the ball 30 yards out with space ahead, three touches set him up for a curling drive into the top corner against Manchester United. A phenomenal goal, Barcelona fans barely had time to celebrate it before they saw Coutinho put his fingers in his ears and close his eyes, blocking out the noise.
Whether that gesture was directed at the press or the fans, it went down well with neither. Although perhaps he felt it was unfair, while he didn’t decide his price tag, his performances had not justified his place for some time. Whatever the intention, the result was a clear indication that the noise at Barcelona had got to him. He had just scored a brilliant goal in the Champions League quarter-final, yet he was thinking about the entorno, not the football.
The polar opposite of crumbling under pressure wears the name Pedri on his back. A 2020 summer arrival at the tender age of 17, many expected him to leave on loan to gain experience. This would be only his second season of senior football; Pedri was never assured a place in the squad, let alone on the pitch. Most of his time at Las Palmas was spent on the left-hand side, some speculated whether he was more naturally suited to the number 10 position. It wasn’t a major issue for consideration.
Pedri’s transfer fee of eight million euros dictated that his role would be from the outside looking in, while the cost of Coutinho (an incredible 145 million euros) ensured he would begin in the starting line-up. Giving Coutinho a place on the bench had to be justified by poor performances first; the alternative is essentially a public statement that your employers bankrupted the club for an impact substitute.
Both arrived this summer from loans in Munich and Las Palmas respectively with Barcelona in full crisis mode. Newly-appointed Ronald Koeman was keen to make the most of Coutinho’s untapped talent and he started off well. While never nailing down a starting role at Bayern, there were 11 goals, nine assists and a definite rejuvenation during his season there. It looked to be working. Koeman had to an extent structured the Barcelona team around him, his 4-2-3-1 featuring Coutinho at its heart. Three goals and an assist were indicative of his good start.
As soon as the going got tough however, his confidence faded swiftly, and his form sank without it. A hamstring injury kept him out of four games, three of which the team won. In the stretch between that injury and his latest knee problem, he started as many games on the bench as he did on the pitch.
This development can also be directly correlated with the rise of Pedri. Where Coutinho looks lost anywhere other than in his favoured number 10 role, Pedri looks comfortable everywhere. On the left, in the 10 position, even playing in the most defensive part of Barcelona’s midfield (the double pivot), Pedri fits.
All too often this season Barcelona have resembled an undersized bed sheet, incapable of covering one part without leaving another exposed. Wherever Pedri is put, he sews the patchwork together - a master tailor. In contrast, Coutinho represents the most supreme of footballing divas. Every condition must be optimal for him to perform, whereas Pedri is the same in the morning as he is at night, on the big stage or in the back garden.
Whenever Pedri is on the pitch, he visibly brings more cohesion to a broken football team. Possession football at Barcelona increasingly looked like something that players feel obliged to try rather than actively believe in. Slow and laboured, it’s easy to defend. Pedri does things quickly. There is a purpose to the possession once again.
In fact, when Pedri is on the pitch there are far fewer touches. One of the most dramatic differences between Pedri and Coutinho is the economy of movement, knowing when to release the ball and which pass to give. His growing understanding with Messi is no coincidence.
Meanwhile Coutinho always lags a step behind. An extra touch or a hesitation dogs every action. The moment in which the attack could’ve opened up the defence is lost and the ball must be recycled. It’s usually sideways or backwards from Coutinho, in a position defined by forward passes.
Ever since he stuck his fingers in his ears, the Brazilian superstar has seemed adrift in a blaugrana shirt. Nobody can doubt his talent, we’ve seen too many examples of his technique for that. Yet he looks as if he has all the gear but no idea what to do with it. Pedri is Ikea; simple, efficient and aesthetic on top of that.
Much cheaper too. With every passing match it feels like the 18-year-old is a prerequisite for any success Los Culés aspire to. On the other hand, the third-most expensive player ever undergoing surgery and missing three months barely felt significant.
The Catalan club were never going to find another Iniesta. After what he contributed over the years, spending big was an easy mistake to make. Replacing him was an impossible task for Coutinho from the start.
It was incredibly unfair to begin this article talking about Iniesta, one of the greatest players ever. And it would be both facile and incorrect to say Pedri is another Iniesta. There are unmistakably some similarities though, in their style, in their nature. In Pedri, Barcelona may have found someone with the personality to occupy Iniesta’s role, if not directly replace him. The teenage Canary Islander looks the closest Barcelona have come to finding a solution in the absence of the solutions man himself. Sometimes less is more, an adage Iniesta followed religiously throughout his career. Pedri understands that too.
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