Philippe Coutinho, the diminutive midfielder from Brazil, shocked the world when he moved from Liverpool to Barcelona in the winter of 2018. The deal saw him become the second most expensive player in history, and expectations skyrocketed just like his price tag.
Fast forward a year and Coutinho seems to be at a crossroads in his Barcelona career. While the fans who have been criticizing him are exactly the ones unnerving Ernesto Valverde and Ivan Rakitic for their safe approach, Coutinho still has a lot to prove but time is ticking.
With Ousmane Dembele set to miss matches due to his hamstring worries, Coutinho has been given a golden chance to prove his worth to both the supporters and the club who were pining for him back in 2018.
Here are the three best positions Valverde can employ Coutinho in to get the best out of the Brazilian and show the world that he is going nowhere:
Advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3
Tite had a world-class Brazilian team at the 2018 World Cup and one of the cornerstones was our very own No.7. Employed as a left midfielder partnering the likes of Casemiro and Paulinho, he was given the freedom to link up with Neymar and move forward with the ball.
With Belgium ultimately ending their hopes in the quarter-finals, Coutinho had a great time with the national team as he managed to score twice and assist the same number of times, starting in all of the matches the Selecao played.
He is a typical Brazilian playmaker and boasts electric feet, astute vision and a venomous shot. Valverde can station him alongside Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in a similar style to Tite’s and gift him the freedom to collaborate with the left-sided attackers in a way he has been doing with the Selecao.
The idea looks scintillating on paper but suffers from a defensive point of view. Like the Brazilian team, the Blaugranes too, might suffer from a defensive collapse as Coutinho in no way has a great defensive mindset. Also with Arthur making the spot his own, it’s rather a tedious task for Valverde to fit Coutinho in that spot.
Attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1
Valverde, like his predecessor Luis Enrique, has experimented with his line-up and the dynamic 4-2-3-1 can be up for experimentation. It was used once against Girona in the 2017-18 season and Barcelona won the game, a resounding 0-3 victory.
With very important matches set to come, especially the Champions League quarter-finals against Manchester United, Valverde needs to ensure his squad is well-rotated to ensure maximum performance and reduce fatigue and potential injury.
The 4-2-3-1 remains a mercurial option in attacking and balanced in defending and our No.7 can capitalise by slotting in just behind the striker. He will naturally do well in that position as his playing style ticks all the boxes. The flanking midfielders can move further up for a more attacking approach.
But there’s a catch here as well: the 4-2-3-1 in all its versatility doesn’t give Barcelona the freedom to pass the ball they way they like to. There’s a chance that Lionel Messi might have to sacrifice some of his free-roam area and that can curb his performances in the match, something that Barcelona simply cannot afford to do.
Left winger in a 4-3-3
Looking at the aforementioned options, one can possibly understand the gaffer’s decision to play Coutinho as a left winger. It has its own set of pros and cons, with versatility being the biggest advantage.
Being a Barcelona winger, Coutinho has the option to link up with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi and in times of doubt, just pass the ball to the ever-reliable Jordi Alba. It also exempts him from most of the defending and ball keeping which Arthur does in an exemplary manner.
But being a winger can hamper his playing style and that has been apparent in recent fixtures. Having lost confidence, Coutinho is struggling to replicate the form he showed before his injury last November.
He was recently subjected to boos by the Camp Nou faithful and that has resulted in a further dip in his form. Yet he must believe in himself and not let the price tag weigh on his performances.
Barcelona have invested in a special player who can turn any game in their favour. The player needs to do his best, and the fans and the rest of the squad need to help him achieve just that.
Time is ticking and at this moment, it’s a favourable time for the diminutive Brazilian - he must make the most of it or he will need to start thinking of a future at another club.