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Philippe Coutinho, the quiet master in Brazil’s World Cup high drama | Barney Ronay | Football

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As Pelé famously pointed out, all you really need is a ball and the green, green grass. Plus of course, in his long-form World Cup version, a vast media presence that could pack out the St Petersburg Stadium on its own; a bubble of crushing continental-scale expectation; and above all tears, tears and more tears.

Nobody does World Cup angst quite like Brazil. As Tite’s talented team wrestled their way to a fraught but ultimately useful 2-0 defeat of Costa Rica by the Gulf of Finland there were howls, cries of frustration, and constant reminders that for Brazil simply being present at the World Cup is to become immersed in a vast overblown operetta of fear, joy and lurking emotional collapse.

And that was just in the press room after the game. By which point two things had become clear. First, Philippe Coutinho has been both Brazil’s player of the tournament to date and, along with Luka Modric, the outstanding midfielder of Russia 2018’s early stages.

This should not be a surprise. But it is a part of the Coutinho shtick that despite having recently moved to Barcelona for £130m it is still possible to suggest he is very slightly underrated, his talents a tiny bit overlooked in a climate where star footballers are so often celebrated beyond all proportion.

In this regard it helps that Coutinho plays for Brazil in the shadow of Neymar, whose emotional paroxysms dominated their first win at this World Cup, even as the beautifully balanced No 8 just behind him was putting on a quiet masterclass of passing, moving, dribbling and shooting.

Brazil are already headed off towards a Group E denouement against Serbia in Moscow on Wednesday. For now Coutinho’s performance feels like a significant note in the early currents of this World Cup. Brazil will improve. Neymar will find his fitness and his edge. But Coutinho’s assertiveness is a rare thing, an individual display of assured winning quality from one of the contenders; and a note of cold certainty in the middle of all that quavering emotion.

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At which point the second thing that became clear post-match was that no one does press conferences quite like Brazil, either. Tite spoke so long and so passionately that after a while you began to worry about the closure of the metro system and the gathering threat of dehydration.

Coutinho

Even the questions from Brazil’s travelling media were full of sub‑clauses and caveats (“And my second part of this question is, do you, Professor, believe that …”). Tite listened to them all and answered in detail.

The most striking part was his line on his overwrought star player, a moment to make those of us exasperated by Neymar’s antics stop and think a little. Neymar, Tite proclaimed, is just a human. He was incredibly stressed. He reacted that way because this means everything to him.

No doubt this World Cup also means a lot to the Costa Rica players Neymar repeatedly swore at and, so it seemed, tried to cheat. But nobody operates in quite such a steam‑cooked environment at modern tournaments.

Four years ago it was clear Brazil were almost done before the Colombia game when Thiago Silva burst into tears at the pre-match press conference. The most remarkable thing about Neymar then was his ability to let this pressure slide off him, to remain opaque, cheerful, fully revved. St Petersburg was Neymar feeling it.

In this context Brazil will be thankful for Tite, a calm, wryly amused figure at the heart of all this melodrama. His changes made the difference against Costa Rica. Douglas Costa came on at half-time and began to torture the left side of the defence with his speed and precision. Roberto Firmino – a more aggressive presence than Gabriel Jesus – was introduced at the right moment.

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Plus Coutinho was a constant through every shift and change of shape. Watching him at the St Petersburg Stadium, able to run and pass and take possession with such preternatural balance, as though the ball is simply an extension of his big toe, the thought occurred that only Modric among current midfielders looks this natural and this easy, players who basically are football, who express its angles and energy in every movement.

Even a Martian visitor could have watched to half-time and decided, yes, the relentless little No 8 is the most natural midfielder you are likely to see, and come to think of it why on earth isn’t he on free kicks.

Again there is a matter of star weighting. Granit Xhaka made some interesting mind-games-style comments in the lead-up to Brazil’s opening match. Xhaka, who clearly does not like Neymar much, recalled a junior World Cup match against Brazil. Neymar was the star in that team, too, a player who already looked like he could sprint the length of the pitch and barely disturb the morning dew. But it was Coutinho who blew the mind of the young Swiss players with his command of every part of his game.

It is this all-rounder status, shooting, passing, running, creating, covering space with dreamy levels of craft, that is Coutinho’s unique quality. By the end of Friday’s game he had run more any other Brazil player without the ball, made more sprints than any of his teammates, and run further overall than anyone bar 12 of 484 players to take the field at Russia 2018.

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With this industry there are of course moments of thrilling quality: the flicked lofted pass to put Neymar in on goal in the first half against Costa Rica. The signature curled dipping right-foot goal against the Swiss, the parabola of the ball taking it two feet outside the post, before violent late in-swing brought it howling into the furthest corner of the net.

Coutinho’s craft is key in a Brazil midfield where he sits alongside two more muscular players in Paulinho and Casemiro. Ahead of him it is also worth acknowledging Neymar’s theatricals, and his dribbling skills took Costa Rica players out of the game, helping Coutinho to thrive.

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This is the secondary benefit of having a real gun attacking player, a hidden pocket of space that Argentina, most obviously, have been unable to exploit at this World Cup. There is plenty of tightening up required for Tite’s Selecao from here. But with two of Big Phil Scolari’s seven steps to heaven just about negotiated, the main man in the middle is already thrumming up through the gears.



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