Philippe Coutinho will be spending his season at Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and Barcelona, after just five matches, may just be missing the little Brazilian magician’s touch.
A lot was expected of Coutinho when he arrived in January 2018 at Barcelona after a long, drawn-out transfer saga a year ago for a reported price tag of €160 million (including add-ons) as the most expensive player in the club’s history.
Coutinho started well, filling the void left by Neymar and seizing the left-wing spot due to Ousmane Dembele’s injury struggles. He scored an impressive 10 goals in 22 games in the 2017/18 season for Barcelona (eight in 16 in La Liga; two in six other competitions) and provided had five assists. He also had a pass completion rate of 86.9% and played an average of 1.6 key passes per game, while completing an average of 2.6 dribbles per game. Impressive stats, considering he rarely played the full 90 minutes in all his 22 games that season.
Last season, however, Ernesto Valverde was uncertain about the best way to layout his players. This, coupled with Arthur’s arrival and immediate adaptation to the Barcelona style made Coutinho expendable. While he got the nod ahead of Ousmane Dembele to start most matches, he struggled on the left-hand side of the attack and couldn’t find space in the midfield, as Arthur helped Barcelona stick to their canon 4-3-3 formation.
This saw a dip in his returns for Barcelona, as he chimed in with only 13 goal involvements in 33 appearances in La Liga and the Champions League (eight goals and five assists). He didn’t just relax, however, as he attempted on average 2.4 shots and played 1.6 key passes per game, at a pass completion rate of 87.4%.
He has eventually found his vibe again in Bayern alongside Robert Lewandowski who is benefitting from his presence on the pitch.
The Polish striker used to have to come back and win the ball to aid in the attack, typical of a ball-playing striker. Now, with Coutinho behind him making the play, he saves his energy and plays as an out-and-out striker to the benefit of Bayern’s title challenge (he has scored nine goals in five Bundesliga games).
Barcelona, on the other hand, are struggling to create anything without Coutinho. The Blaugrana started their season with injuries to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez (picked up on the opening day), and Ousmane Dembele, three of four attackers who are expected to be the focal point of their attack this season. Antoine Griezmann was brought in from Atletico Madrid to offer something new to the attack, and bar his two-goal-and-an-assist man of the match performance in the 5-2 home win against Real Betis, he has lacked bite upfront.
Messi, Suarez, and more recently, Dembele have returned to the squad but have struggled to make a meaningful impact since then. Last night, after winning the award for the best FIFA men’s player for a record sixth time, Messi said in an interview to MARCA that he feels “fatigued and heavy, lacking rhythm” after returning from a calf injury that saw him miss the opening matches of Barcelona’s 2019/20 campaign.
The Argentinian talisman returned as a substitute against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last week, but he could do nothing to prevent the eventual 0-0 draw.
— Axel Witsel (@axelwitsel28) September 18, 2019
He again came off the bench on Saturday against Granada for his first La Liga appearance of the season, but he could not stop Barca falling to a shock 2-0 defeat.
This is worrisome, considering that Barcelona have an xG (expected goals) ratio of 7.47 (via understat) from all matches played so far, an allusion to the fact that that the attack is potent enough to do harm.
Where would Coutinho fit in the current Barcelona set up?
One of the talking points from the loss to Granada is the formation change which Valverde implemented in the second half, as he brought on 16-year old talent Ansumane Fati and Messi. Griezmann, who started the match on the left immediately switched to the right, as Ansu Fati took up his position at the left. Messi played behind them in a no. 10 role in order to pull strings for those ahead of him.
The 4-2-3-1 formation which Valverde implemented in the second half is the kind of formation in which Coutinho would absolutely thrive, as can be seen in Bayern’s current set-up. In this set-up, Messi will play from the right as he always does on paper, and Coutinho will play at the no. 10 role. This way, he can swap positions effectively with any of those playing wide, giving opposition defenders a headache thinking about who will pop-up where.
He will most likely favour the left-wing, as he likes to cut in from there and shoot towards goal. All of Barcelona’s current forwards are versatile and can play across the attack, so this won’t be as chaotic as it seems.
Coutinho will also provide Barcelona with a man just outside the box to help keep the pressure on the opponents in this set-up as well. While the other attackers dribble their way into the box or make intelligent runs behind the defenders, the Brazilian will be an option just outside the box which they can use to restart the attack if they are crowded out of the box, putting immense pressure on the opponents.
Barcelona have started badly and are struggling to create play and chances, and they have little time left to improve. This week is vital in Barca’s season and anything less than two victories will pile even further pressure on Valverde.