We’re all familiar with the heat-check guy in basketball. That is a guy, usually a yappy wing player tasked with the sole responsibility of getting buckets from off the bench, who exhibits such outsized confidence in his jumper that, when he gets it going with a few consecutive Js, he’s prone to throw up all manner of nonsense at the hoop from any spot on the floor, with any number of defenders blanketing him, in an effort to see if, as he not-so-secretly believes, anything those magical hands of his toss at the rim will arc through the air and splash through the net because he is literally on fire and could chuck the ball behind his head and it would go in.
This phylum of player also exists in soccer. There are guys, usually attacking midfielders and wingers, who love bashing balls from dozens of yards away from goal in an effort to recreate the memory of the last time one of those shots went in and they were able to fly around the pitch screaming their brains out because Holy shit, did you see what I just did?!?
The particulars of the two sports make it so the phenomenon is a little different in soccer, though. Since shots are so much less frequent in soccer than basketball, the timespan of a player’s heat check mode lasts a lot longer. A single bomb from deep that finds the back of the net can be enough to embolden a player to keep trying those kinds of low-percentage shots for months. Hell, Cheick Tioté still takes pot shots from 30 yards out because of that one banger he volleyed in against Arsenal five years ago—which remains the only goal he’s ever scored for Newcastle.
The memory of one golazo can blot out the scores of missed shots from similar distances taken since then. In the worst offenders, this means you can almost see their minds drifting back to that moment of glory each time they enter the final third, searching for that tiniest wedge of space to boot off another shot that has only the slightest chance of beating the keeper.
Philippe Coutinho is this worst offender—though perhaps “worst” is a little strong. As any of his annual highlight reels will show you, he is pretty damn good at those outside-the-box curlers that fly into the net, and he scores a few of them every season. Because he’s a little jitterbug of a player so adept at skittering into dangerous spaces near goal, and because he’s so good at making something happen when he gets there, Coutinho often finds the ball at his feet within scoring distance. It’s no wonder then why he shoots so much from there.
The only thing is, being good at the kinds of speculative long shots Coutinho loves taking is a little like an NBA player being good at half-court shots. I’m sure Stephen Curry could hit those at a much better clip than anyone else in the league, but that would still make them terribly inefficient shots that he could improve just by jogging forward a few paces and getting a better one. The point being, almost every single time Coutinho shoots from distance, even though three or four of them will go in over the span of any given season, he’d be much more effective if he kept the ball on his foot and waited to create a better, closer look for himself or a teammate.
This all makes watching Coutinho funny in an odd sort of way. On one hand, it’s always cool seeing him uncork a handful of the many, many shots he takes every game (he was once again Liverpool’s most prolific shooter this past season, taking 4.3 pops per game—almost an entire shot more than Daniel Sturridge, the Liverpool striker who scores all the time) and tracking them as they bend towards goal. On the other, you know that if he’d only tamp down on his heat-check impulse a tad, he’d almost certainly be a much better player. Weirder still is the experience of watching one of his long blasts actually hit the net, sitting there in wonder at its wobbling flight path, then thinking to yourself Damn, this means he’s going to stay in green light mode for the rest of the year, huh?
Which brings us to last night. Did you watch Brazil do a Germany to Haiti? If you did, you’ve already seen the three goals Coutinho contributed to his country’s 7-1 demolition job. If not, the first of his hat trick goals...
...and the third...
...should make clear what all of this is about.
In Coutinho’s defense, neither of the decisions to shoot these were all that bad. For the first one, he’s pretty well covered by three Haitian defenders; he could’ve either shot when he did, kept moving with the ball and gotten it tackled away, or passed to someone who wasn’t in as good of position as he already was. Shooting there was fine, and it certainly worked out. The goal in the second video was deep into stoppage time and basically the last kick the ball in a match that was already over. No harm in trying his luck from there, and it again proved to be the right decision.
Remember, though: these will probably be the only two belters of this kind Coutinho will score this tournament. But when you see him cranking out similar shots from nigh-impossible angles as the Copa América progresses, and when he’s still doing so during an October away trip to Watford, you’ll know that each time he pulls his foot back and prepares to swing his laces through the ball he’s thinking of tonight, perfectly confident that the next shot will be the one to validate all the others.