Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Philippe Coutinho signed for Barcelona in January 2018, reportedly for €160 million (including add-ons), making it the third most expensive Association football transfer.
A lot of expectations were riding on Coutinho as he was about to take up all the pressure on his shoulders and a crucial void left by Iniesta and Neymar. Coutinho played a high number of minutes right from the start as Dembele was still struggling because of his injury. Last season, Coutinho scored a splendid 10 goals along with 5 assists in 22 games.
However, this season, he has dunked his performance, scoring only 8 goals in 38 competitive games. Ernesto Valverde gave him enough opportunities but he was not able to stamp his authority whenever he played.
Playing almost regularly for his side, he didn’t see himself in the starting line-ups because of his lack of goals and assists. He was made to play in two different positions but still couldn’t make himself comfortable. However, the answer to the question still remains up in the air: is he better-suited as a midfielder or as a winger?
Coutinho as a midfielder :
This season, we have seen Dembele was given a foremost role than he had in his debut season. This resulted to Coutinho’s move in the midfield.
This zone was no new to him as during his career at Liverpool, he played as a winger but instead of going for glory, he always fancied himself to drift down a bit to make himself a room for a shot or to pass upfront. It was more of a CAM position. But this strategy was not working for him at his new club. The complication that he faces is from his teammate, Leo Messi. Messi likes to play in the same position which makes every player seems foolish to come in and control his area, not even a player of excellence as Coutinho. So playing as a attacking midfielder seemed rather half-witted decision to Coutinho.
His best match came as a midfielder against Huesca with the rating of 8.2 out of 10. Against them, he didn’t score any goals but had an assist to his name. Going goalless for a full match, he used his creativity to make the passes. With 88 passes(91% accuracy) and creating 2 goal scoring chances( 1 ended up finding the net), he was slowly cementing his place.
What we have noticed sometimes, is that, Coutinho drops back a bit to find himself some space to receive the passes, providing more passing options to himself. This is, his another problem that he is facing. During his Premier League days, ‘attack’ was the only mantra that he used to follow but other than the most clubs, Barcelona wants specific roles by specific players, as they play by the style called ‘Juego de posicion’(play by position). It granted Coutinho less to play in his own way, which downgraded his performance. Truth to be said his stats do favour him as a LCM, regardless of his “official” role in the team.
Coutinho as a winger :
Coutinho feels like home when is made to play as a Left Winger. This position feels more natural to him. He prefers the left side as he’s able to cut to his right side allowing himself to have a go.
Talking about his best game as a left winger, it has to be one against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. He started the match, involving in action for 83 minutes until he was substituted by Rafinha. During his 83 minutes of football, he netted one goal along with an assist, having 91% of passing accuracy.
This position gives Coutinho to dance near the edge of the opposition’s box, giving him his ideal situation to cut inside to his right foot and boom! making the goalkeeper work. Another advantage this move has, is that, it gives Alba a lot of freedom on the left, making himself available for a pass. This move allows Alba to overlap runs as usual. Against Valencia, when Coutinho was played as a Left Winger he gave 13 passes to Alba on the left side while receiving 23 from the Spaniard.
Still he misses that fizz needed to be as a LW player at Barcelona. He doesn’t appear to be fit into Barcelona style of play. He takes extra touches too often which leads to robbery of the ball. Playing upfront against the untouchables, Suarez and Messi, the Brazilian hasn’t been able to run his show.
The winding up:
Coutinho, the big money signing, hasn’t been able to fit into Barça’s fast passing and tip-toe movement methods. To make it even worse case for him, there’s even rumours going around about his possible return to a PL side in the coming future. It’s too early to tag a price for Coutinho but we can admit he has fallen way behind of expectations. What he should really do now is to play simple. We have seen him doing this in his recent match against Rayo Vallecano. He was simply making the passes, avoiding crashing into traffic and keeping the tempo going. If he starts swotting the style play immediately, he can be still a starter at Camp Nou. Reports emerging, saying that Dembele has a slight hamstring injury which makes him doubtful to play against Lyon in the Champions League. This also means Coutinho has a good chance to start the match. Its a chance he needs to take. Not doubting his talent, the next few weeks will be very much decisive for Coutinho and Barcelona.