In 2017, Philippe Coutinho was on top of the world.
He was one of the key cogs in Jürgen Klopp’s dynamic Liverpool team, and was fantastic to watch. Fantastic. In 2017-18, Coutinho was averaging four shots p90, 7.7 successful dribbles p90, 4.7 through balls and seven passes into the box p90. He was an attacking engine, and could just as easily ping a long one and send an attacker through on goal as he could skip past four and curl it in from range. Klopp’s Liverpool was on the ascendancy, and Coutinho was the jewel in the Merseyside club’s crown.
Then, rumours began to emerge. Coutinho was being heavily linked to Barça, and a potential January move was on the cards. Liverpool had resisted the Catalans’ overtures all summer. At the time, Klopp had said to the Brazilian: “Stay here and they will end up building a statue in your honour. Go somewhere else, to Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to Real Madrid, and you will be just another player. Here, you can be something more”. As the season went on, however, it became clear that all was not well. Even though his on-field form was exemplary, it was clear that Coutinho was pushing for a move, and that Barça were interested. The rumours continued to persist all through the fall, and intensified in December. It was becoming clear that the move was only a matter of time. And a matter of time it was. On the 6th of January 2018, the Brazilian completed his move to Barcelona, becoming the club’s most expensive acquisition in the process (€145 million).
At first, all seemed well. Coutinho made his debut in a substitute appearance against city-rivals Espanyol, in the Copa del Rey, coming on (symbolically, perhaps) for Andrés Iniesta. A week later, he scored his debut goal; a reaching effort towards goal, that came after some neat off the ball movement. Ernesto Valverde was deploying Coutinho on the left, either as a wide-midfielder in 4-4-2 or as a left-winger. And it was working well enough. Yes, his creative numbers were down a little, but he made up for that with ample end product; and therefore, all was forgotten. In retrospect, however, the warning signs were already there. Coutinho was now averaging 2.4 shots p90 (as compared to four) alongside 1.95 through balls (compared to 4.7) and four balls into the box p90. Perhaps, the dip was due to the adjustment process? After all, Coutinho was playing a little higher up the pitch, and a little wider than before. This argument was completely understandable at the time, but seems entirely wrong in retrospect. The decline in underlying numbers was not a blip. It was part of a larger decline.
Nevertheless, Coutinho did produce some moments of magic in that season, including a wonderful backheel goal versus Malaga and a hat-trick against Levante. In 22 appearances, the Brazilian chipped in with 10 goals and six assists, which was impressive, all things considered. Therefore, there was optimism, heading into the summer. With the departure of Iniesta, it looked like Coutinho was going to nail a starting spot.
Then the 18/19 campaign happened. Unless you watched Barça last season, you cannot understand how poor Coutinho was. It was as if a switch was flicked within. Where there had been motivation and hunger, (it was his ‘dream move’, after all) there was now dissatisfaction. He did not look like he wanted to be there. In 31 appearances (across all competitions) Coutinho managed 11 goals and three assists. But truth be told, those numbers are flattering. His underlying numbers had taken a major hit. Coutinho was now managing two shots on target p90, one through ball, 5.5 passes into the final third and three passes into the box p90. He was uninvolved and ineffective out of possession and was equally isolated in possession. The game at Anfield, poetic as it is, was a stark reminder of his decline. A torrid season was capped by the ultimate humiliation. While his former team was on the rise, Coutinho, who had ironically left to seek greener pastures, was heading the opposite way.
It is hard to understand why Coutinho underperformed the way he did. Many believe it was because he had been played out of position. But that isn’t strictly true. A look at his heatmaps confirms this.
At Liverpool, Coutinho was dominant in and around the left space, but was also present in the central channels. In his first few months at Barça, he did move a bit more to the wing, but was still frequenting the left half-space. What he was not doing, however, was cutting in centrally, at least as often as he was at Liverpool. But that was understandable. He was playing alongside Leo Messi, who himself drops into central areas frequently, and did not have the same level of freedom to roam. The change in positioning, as mentioned earlier, did have an impact on the Brazilian’s underlying numbers, but not to the extent that it became worrisome. Coutinho’s overall outlook seemed positive, and it was expected that a player of his calibre would not have any issues adjusting to a slightly different role.
Well, as we now know, that is not how it panned out. And that’s what is perplexing. His heatmap from 18/19 really isn’t all that different from the one from 17/18. Yes, the drift into central areas had reduced, but it’s not as if he had been pushed out further to the left. If anything, he was less present in the wide channels, especially compared to the half-season (17/18).
So? What was it then? It wasn’t solely a positioning problem, although that did play a part. It was more than that. Firstly, yes, with Lionel Messi in the team, Coutinho had less freedom to roam in central channels. At Liverpool, the team had been built around him; the system had been tuned to allow him maximum freedom. That was not the case at Barça. Klopp’s quote rang true, he was just another player. Perhaps, then, the Coutinho transfer was ill-advised from the start. Throughout his career, he had thrived on being the talisman of the team, the chief creator. At Barça, of course, that could not be the case. After all, the Blaugranas already had a player with that very profile, a player who had a part in every attack: Leo Messi. To expect Coutinho to come into the team and provide width and creative end product, at the same time, was unfair. Not to mention, incredibly stupid. After all, there were several players who could do that, and at a fraction of a cost. He was a speciality player, not a one-size fits all solution to Barça’s width problems.
Secondly, however, his failure might have been related to his mentality. When Coutinho first arrived at the club, he looked hungry. He was the new boy and was eager to impress. That was not the Coutinho we saw at the end of the 18/19 campaign. By then, he looked frustrated. The season had not gone the way he wanted it to, the fans had turned on him, and it did not seem like he wanted to be there anymore. That infamous celebration against Manchester United being a case in point. It is impossible to say what exactly caused the decline in fortitude. What can be said with certainty, however, is that a decline was there. And it was significant.
Now, where does that leave Coutinho?
Not in a great position, honestly. There are reports coming out of Bavaria that suggest that Bayern Munich does not want to exercise their purchase option (€120 million) and are willing to let Coutinho go. That may have to do with the fact that the Bavarians are looking for wide players, and that a 120 million splurge on a ‘10’ does not fit their plans. Because apart from the fee, it is hard to understand why they would want to let him go. In his time at Bayern, Coutinho has scored nine goals and has assisted six, with an xG+xA of 0.87. He is also averaging 2.36 through balls, 7.7 balls into the final third and five balls into the box p90 alongside 6.14 successful dribbles and 3.66 shots. That is a drastic improvement on last season. What is interesting is that he still spends the majority of his time in the left half-space, only now he has the license to roam inwards. Manager Hansi Flick has allowed Coutinho to be free, and he has responded in kind.
It is unclear what Barça plan to do with Coutinho, in case Bayern offload him. Sport recently reported that Setien is said to find Coutinho ‘interesting’ and that a return to Catalonia has not been ruled out. Setien has always played with a high interior or two and, therefore, his interest in the player is understandable. With a Coutinho-profile in the team, Setien could play his favoured 3-4-1-2, with Coutinho functioning as the anchor between midfield and attack. However, it is important to remember that Leo Messi is still at the club and as long as that is the case, the club will continue to have an anchor (who would occupy similar areas as Coutinho). Therefore, many of the same problems as before may arise. Unless Setien can rectify those problems, Coutinho will continue to be a square peg in a round hole. And a very expensive one at that.
Here’s to hoping that Setien can do so. And if not, then here’s to hoping that Coutinho can get back to his best elsewhere, and in doing so, falsify Jürgen Klopp’s prophecy.
(All data from Wyscout. Heatmaps from SofaScore)