By Paul Gardner
Last week’s Inter-Spurs Champions League game grabbed a lot of headlines for the astounding way that Spurs, with 10 men, were able to come back from 4-0 down to a 4-3 final score -- courtesy of three goals from Gareth Bale. Three terrific goals from a 21-year-old player who gets better with every game, and who exemplifies the modern flank player.
We’re talking about the left flank for the left-footed Bale. His stamina and athleticism allow him to range ceaselessly and speedily up and down that area -- this moment a tackling fullback, then a passing midfielder, and so on up to a goalscoring winger. All of the roles filled with skill and speed -- a coach’s dream really, the all-purpose player, so good, so adaptable, that a vague, non-specific term like “flank player” is the best we can do to describe his varied talents.
Gareth Bale (you should know from that first name) is Welsh, and you have to wonder whether we’re about to witness the birth of a competitive Welsh national team, after years of almost laughable futility. The question is in order, because another of the British game’s brightest stars is also Welsh -- Arsenal’s 19-year-old Aaron Ramsey, currently recovering from a broken leg suffered in an EPL game.
It was late in the game against Inter that Bale shifted his talents into over-drive -- scoring his second and third goals in the 90th and 91st minutes. I’ll confess that up until that storming climax, I had not been paying any special attention to Bale. I had been concentrating on another youngster, Inter’s 18-year-old Brazilian, Coutinho.
Coutinho is a player who greatly interests me because he is a dribbler. At least, that is how I see him. And we don’t have many out-and-out dribblers in the game these days. I would, without hesitation, classify Coutinho as a winger. Which would evidently put me in a minority of about one. He is repeatedly classified as a midfielder -- that was how he was listed on Brazil’s roster for last year’s Under-17 World Cup, that is how Inter describes him. Indeed, that’s how he describes himself, brushing aside comparisons with AC Milan’s Pato with “He’s a forward, I’m more of a midfielder.”
His role model, he says, is Wesley Sneijder, certainly a midfielder. OK, but Sneijder happens to be the man in possession in the Inter midfield at the moment -- and Inter coach Rafa Benitez will not be fielding a Sneijder clone alongside him any time soon. But Coutinho is evidently much too promising to leave off the team, so we have him playing wide, much more like a winger than a midfielder.
I studied Coutinho closely in yesterday’s Inter-Sampdoria game. Without doubt, Inter’s most dangerous attacking player, much more dangerous than Sneijder, who had a poor game. The stats -- the ones I kept -- read like this: Coutinho played 87 minutes and had a total of 57 touches of the ball (only one of which was a header). He made but one inaccurate pass (a cross that went to the opposing goalkeeper), he lost possession of the ball twice.
These are remarkable figures, but they don’t even begin to convey the excitement that Coutinho brings. In the second half, when Inter was finding it difficult to create goalscoring chances against an excellent Sampdoria defense, it was Coutinho, with his direct dribbling and dangerous passing who looked the Inter player most likely to break through. It would be nice to add “deadly shooting” to Coutinho’s arsenal, but that was not one of his strong points, not on this day anyway.
With Sampdoria leading 1-0 and threatening a mighty upset in the San Siro it was Coutinho who saved the day with a sudden sprint forward to meet Esteban Cambiasso’s pass, a clipped short cross to the near post for Samuel Eto’o to volley into the net.
Where Sneijder had spent most of the game delivering long crosses that accomplished nothing, Coutinho served up a superb short cross -- more of a pass, really -- for Eto’o to score the tying goal.
But it was the dribbling that stood out -- the sheer determination and bravery of striding full speed at an opponent, not a second’s hesitation, with a lovely springy step, the elegant balance, and the ravishing body swerves. The sort of thing he did so excitingly about 10 minutes before the goal. Although he had spent most of the game on the left flank, he was now on the right, cutting smoothly inside a posse of three defenders, causing total panic in the Sampdoria penalty area and, as the ball bobbled loose, latching onto it and forcing the goalkeeper into a desperation save (with his leg).
Benitez has already hailed Coutinho as “the future of Inter,” which seems a bit extravagant. But this is certainly a marvelously gifted player, and judging from the games against Spurs and Sampdoria, Benitez is allowing him considerable freedom to move about the field, and to employ his dribbling.
However one defines Coutinho, forward or winger or midfielder, it is this dynamic dribbling that stands out as his finest skill. One might be concerned about that. For the moment, Coutinho is new to Serie A. He is not yet a marked man, but that distinction cannot long be delayed. A warning of what is to be expected came in the 86th minute of this game when Sampdoria’s Guido Marilungo plowed into Coutinho’s legs, leaving him hobbling for a couple of minutes before he was taken off.
Hobbling off is certainly better than being stretchered off, the fate of poor Aaron Ramsey. But yesterday, as Coutinho limped off the field, he also got what his performance surely deserved, a standing ovation.