The final home game of the 2018/2019 season was one to forget for Barcelona. Just days after their disappointing Champions League elimination against Liverpool, Barca took to the pitch to face Getafe in front of an irate and frustrated crowd at the Camp Nou.
Throughout the game, the crowd remained relatively silent and only made their voices heard in discontent as to how poorly Barca played. It seemed as if both the players and fans did not want to be there as their minds were still fixated on what happened at Anfield.
The atmosphere was to an extent agonizing and was even worse whenever Philippe Coutinho touched the ball. When the Brazilian controlled possession, fans unleashed their boos and jeers. Fans were restless to his overall play and were relentless in raining down their whistles or whatever was on their mind towards Coutinho.
For the Brazilian international, the reaction was nothing new nor surprising. But the reason for the reaction at the Camp Nou varied depending on whom you could have asked. Some fans painted him as the scapegoat for Barca’s Champions League elimination while others just voiced their displeasure towards his uninspiring play throughout the season.
In the end, Coutinho had a good couple of sequences but was not a constant threat in the attack throughout the entirety of his time on the pitch and was subbed off in the second half to a mixture of cheers and jeers, walking off the pitch for quite possibly the last time wearing the Blaugrana colors.
It was a season for Coutinho that was lackluster and far from what was initially expected.
When Barcelona brought him in from Liverpool last year for a £142 million transfer fee with add-ons, there was great anticipation from the board and the coaching staff to what he could bring to the team. While at Liverpool, Coutinho emerged as one of the best playmakers in the Premier League. His versatility on the pitch and creative knack to spark a fast-paced attack for the Reds made him stand out during his time in England.
The hope for Barca was for Coutinho to continue to make his mark on games while also carrying a hefty responsibility. With the departure of Neymar and the lack of creativity from the midfield unit, Barca desperately needed someone to come in and help share the playmaking responsibilities alongside Messi. While the transfer fee garnered criticism, the expectation for Coutinho was for him to ultimately justify it by elevating his play on a world class level.
From Coutinho’s perspective, this was a dream move. He had hoped to follow in the footsteps of players like Rivaldo and Ronaldinho to be the next Brazilian international to become a club legend at Barca. The player even paid around £10 million to financially secure the move. It seemed as if the stars had aligned for Coutinho to emerge as the next club fan favorite.
But Coutinho’s boyhood dream has become a near literal nightmare.
While he had initial success last year, his struggles this season have undoubtedly overshadowed it. Coutinho’s play on the pitch has at times been lacking in creativity. He has had some grand moments but the inconsistency throughout the season has been unfulfilling to the team. As a result, his confidence on the pitch has dampened and has been reminiscent to how Fernando Torres played while at Chelsea after leaving Liverpool.
This all brings up the question that has recently become the main talking point for the club: where has it all gone wrong?
Short but promising stint in the midfield
When Coutinho was announced last January, the initial plan was for him to play an instrumental role in the midfield. The board admired Coutinho’s ability to adapt to multiple positions. They viewed him as the player that would fill in the creative void in Valverde’s 4-4-2 formation. Coutinho’s ability to play either on the left or right gave Barca even more freedom to insert him into various positions and roles on the pitch.
At the start, it seemed as if the move was just what Barca needed. Through his first four months with the club, Coutinho showed Barca and its fans just what he was capable of as a playmaker. In 22 appearances for Barca in the 2017/2018 campaign, Coutinho finished with eight goals, five assists and averaged 1.99 key passes per 90 minutes. Slowly but surely throughout the campaign, Coutinho began to assimilate with the Barca style of play.
As alluded to before, Coutinho’s versatility is a key trait of his style and Valverde used it to his full advantage last season. Whether it was in the 4-4-2 as a midfielder or in the 4-3-3 as a winger, Valverde played Coutinho in both systems on the left and right.
An example of this came in the fixture against Athletic Bilbao during the 2017/2018 season. Valverde lined Barca in the 4-4-2 setup with Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi up front as the central forwards. See here how Coutinho is tucked in behind the two forwards as the ball is on the right flank. Coutinho’s positioning and spacing allows him to move into the box from the left if given the opportunity to exploit the space between the front two.
Over time, Coutinho found success in Valverde’s 4-4-2 setup due to his ability to interchange between playing on the flank and operating in the half-space. Whether it was as the left or right midfielder, Coutinho found ways to get involved in the attack. He was not creating goal-scoring chances at the rate that he had while with Liverpool but his lively movement and ball progressions in the attacking third gave Barca a new element to their attack. Due to his positioning in the midfield, he also had freedom to move across the pitch.
See here in the home fixture against Valencia from the 2017/2018 season and how Coutinho moves upfield in the 4-4-2 setup. Coutinho quickly notices the off-ball run from Suarez and breaks through Valencia’s defensive line for the assist.
Coutinho also played in the wing during the 2017/2018 season but his time as a midfielder in the 4-4-2 setup showed great potential to how he could adapt to multiple roles with Barca. His goal-scoring and playmaking prowess was undoubtedly on display but his ability to be impactful with and without the ball from an attacking standpoint was a characteristic that was much-needed for Barca. Coutinho showed strong poise while in possession and his play off the ball displayed how well he quickly grew in Valverde’s 4-4-2 tactical setup.
The one minor drawback to his play in the midfield is that with his lateral or upfield movements on the pitch, he often left space in behind to be exploited in the case of a counter-attack or opponent’s transition. But since this occurred in the 4-4-2 setup, a midfielder adjacent to Coutinho could move in to cover the area.
Overall, Coutinho’s promising showings in the 4-4-2 setup convinced Valverde just enough to insert him as a midfielder in the 4-4-3 formation for the start of the 2018/2019 season. Initially, this move signaled that Valverde might have been looking to go for a more attacking approach. Coutinho was positioned alongside Busquets and Rakitic while playing with the mentality of an attacking midfielder. Subsequently, he would be paired with Dembele and Alba on the left flank.
The most impressive aspect of Coutinho’s play in Valverde’s 4-3-3 setup was his constant movement on the pitch. Unlike Rakitic and Busquets, Coutinho was more willing to be advantageous in his off-ball runs to move in between the opponent’s lines and open up passing lanes. Play on the pitch was more of a faster pace when the ball moved out on the left flank or in the half-space due to Coutinho’s positioning and spacing.
An example of this is from the home fixture against PSV. See here how Coutinho links with Messi and begins to exploit space in between PSV’s midfield. As a result, Coutinho weaves in behind and his movement upfield orchestrates a goal-scoring chance for himself.
Even against a low block, Coutinho’s quick movement helped in creating a goal-scoring opportunity out of nothing.
Through seven games in the midfield, Coutinho continued to show great progress as a midfielder but one aspect of his play hindered his future in the position and was one of the main reasons that Valverde pulled the plug on the experiment. As was the case when he played in the 4-4-2 setup, Coutinho was successful in opening up the attack more with his movement but it often left in space behind to be exploited. In situations where Coutinho misplaces a pass or loses possession, it could jumpstart an odd-man counter-attack for the opponent. A midfielder adjacent in the 4-4-2 could move over and cover the space but it would not be as successful in the 4-3-3 due to the positional setup.
Overall, Coutinho had room for improvement as a midfielder such as with pressing and winning duels but he showed that there was much to be expected from him in that role.
Struggles as a winger
Even though Coutinho showed potential in the midfield, Valverde elected for a more conservative and defensive setup by alternating between Arturo Vidal and Arthur in the midfield while moving Coutinho out to the left-wing role. The move made it clear that while Coutinho in the midfield added an effective attacking style to the team, Valverde placed much importance on maintaining the positional shape of his 4-3-3 setup and of a more methodical possession-based midfield. From a defensive standpoint, Valverde also made this move with the viewpoint that both Arthur and Vidal would be more efficient in and against pressing.
In hindsight, the move was a questionable one but far from being a major risk. Whether it was for Liverpool, Brazil or even in his first couple of months with Barca, Coutinho had previous experience playing as a winger. At times in previous seasons, he even showed that the position was more natural for him than it was for him in the midfield.
So from the home fixture against Athletic Bilbao through the rest of the season, Coutinho played as a left winger. The move, however, turned out to be a grand disappointment.
As a winger, Coutinho struggled to replicate the same playmaking success that he had while in the midfield. He had an extremely difficult time bringing an attacking presence from the flank. Play became slow and predictable from Coutinho at times due to his inability to dribble with continual success into the box. When in possession, Coutinho was less able to take on defenders and penetrate into open space. Instead, he often took the conservative route and passed the ball back while moving back into position.
The one significant aspect of his play that held him back as a winger was his constant struggles in losing possession and poor decisions in the attacking third. Wingers will come under constant pressure when attempting to create from out wide, especially in duels against full-backs. The best wingers are able to maneuver their way from out wide or use their movement to get themselves involved in the attack. In Coutinho’s case, he had a difficult time in doing either.
See here how Coutinho is coming in from out wide with multiple players in the box. Instead of attempting to cut inside or look to send in a through ball, Coutinho loses possession due to his lack of movement to orchestrate either.
Again, see here how Coutinho is moving inside into the box with Messi as an option and Alba behind him for a possible overlap run. Coutinho is slow on the ball and thus allows the defender to move in and press him.
Losing possession and seemingly overthinking each move while in possession became an underwhelming theme for Coutinho this past season. The Brazilian struggled to bring much activity from the flanks due to his passive movements while in possession. As a result, his play from the left wing limited Barca’s attacking options and made them more reliant on building from the center and half-spaces.
Coutinho’s difficulty in playing as a winger was also centered on minor mistakes that could have easily been avoidable. There were instances time after time this past season where Coutinho was aggressively looking to push upfield and take on multiple defenders rather than seek to link up with team-mates approaching the box. And as a finisher, Coutinho found a hard time finding a good rhythm with his shots as in just La Liga alone, he missed nine big chances.
Even though Coutinho did not successfully adapt to playing as a winger for Barca, it was far from being a complete disaster. As he did for much of his tenure in the midfield, Coutinho orchestrated good off-ball runs and was constantly moving on the left wing as a tactic to stretch the opponent’s backline. He was patient in his runs and looked to weave in behind the defense. His effort and movement as a winger on the pitch was never a concern.
Through his play as a winger, he just seemed more comfortable with the ball when he dropped deep or occupied space inside. See here how Coutinho is able to slide into the open space inside, create space for himself by eluding the defender and facilitate a goal-scoring opportunity for Gerard Pique.
Coutinho had his share of good sequences and games as he did against Real Madrid and Lyon, but the game-by-game inconsistency far outweighed his overall performance this past season.
What next for Coutinho?
The future of Coutinho with Barcelona is uncertain. As of late, neither Coutinho nor the board have given a firm stance as to what will happen in the summer transfer window. But nothing is off the table. Coutinho could be sold this summer or the club could end up keeping him for another year.
In the case that the board decides to sell Coutinho, they will have an extremely difficult time finding the perfect suitor. There is no doubt that many of the top teams in Europe will show significant interest in bringing in a player like Coutinho, but the price will turn them all off. With the price that Barca paid for Coutinho and the fact that his contract runs until 2023, Barca could very well be adamant in seeking a deal worth nothing less than €90M. But finding a team willing to take on this deal will be the major roadblock. A team like Chelsea or PSG could show interest but neither might be able to complete a potential transfer deal due to internal ongoing conflicts such as a looming transfer ban or FFP issues.
In contrast if Coutinho stays, he will have even higher expectations to bounce back from last season’s underwhelming showings. But how Valverde will change his managerial approach towards Coutinho remains to be seen. Valverde insisted on playing Coutinho as a winger without much consideration to his struggles in adapting to the position. Now Valverde could look to alter the team’s formation by possibly experimenting with a 4-2-3-1 to play at a faster pace or revert back to the 4-4-2 where Coutinho had considerable success. Coutinho could very well find success in both formations due to the positional freedom that comes with them. But considering how Valverde was resistant to take risks in his tactical setup throughout the season, it is very unlikely that he will alter the team’s gameplan just to accommodate one player.
For a talent like Coutinho, it is certainly surprising to see his career dwindle down to this point but regardless of where he will be playing next season, he needs to have a resurgent campaign to prove that he is still capable of consistent world class play.