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What’s the problem with Philippe Coutinho at Barcelona?

Philippe Coutinho’s one year anniversary as a Barcelona player wasn’t exactly been a happy occasion.

Coutinho signed for Barcelona on January 6th, 2018. But on January 6th, 2019 he was sat on the bench watching his team play Getafe. He got on for a cameo at the end but was clearly too desperate to make a good impression to actually, well, make a good impression.

The match was also Coutinho’s fourth consecutive league game starting on the sidelines, the longest such run of his time in Catalunya even when he was first settling into the club last season. And his performances thereafter since getting back into the side have been so uninspired that he looks set to return to the bench soon.

Whilst Liverpool, Real Madrid and Espanyol fans will probably be very happy at this, almost everyone else will be disappointed at the wayward form of a world-class player. But what has caused this dip? Why is Coutinho, the world’s third-most expensive player ever and Liverpool’s record sale, on the outs at Barcelona?

Well, it starts with summer 2017 when Barcelona lost Neymar. You see, that move was such a blow that they instantly stepped up a slow-bubbling pursuit for Coutinho as well as suddenly deciding to move for Ousmane Dembélé. The Blaugrana claimed their interest in Coutinho was long-standing, as they saw him as the heir to Andrés Iniesta – and that it was Dembélé who was scheduled to replace Neymar.

Of course, Liverpool held out in the summer, so Coutinho was denied his dream move. And although Dembélé did make the move, a hamstring injury reduced him to a mere spectator until the new year. What this did was leave Barcelona extremely short on talent, so much so that the 4-3-3 false nine that Ernesto Valverde opened the season playing was absolutely unworkable in any shape or form. Valverde knew he had to adapt, and so he did, switching to a 4-4-1-1 to minimise the defensive problems caused by having Leo Messi as a winger.

This system worked and Barça rode the genius of Messi (with help from Sergio Busquets, Marc-André Ter Stegen and a sublime season from Ivan Rakitic) to a superb domestic campaign. By the time the club went back and signed Coutinho in January, they were looking very good indeed. And the signing of Coutinho to replace Iniesta made even more sense than it did in the summer.

Coutinho playing central midfield in a 4-3-3 always seemed like a big risk defensively (more on that in a minute) but in the 4-4-1-1 the role he would play on the left was part central midfielder, part winger, part attacking midfielder. It perfectly suited his skill-set. And – unsurprisingly – the Brazilian began life for Barcelona soaring in superb form. Goals and assists flowed, he put in key displays in the Copa del Rey final, he even managed to impress in the Blaugrana’s only Liga defeat of the season – scoring a hat-trick in a barmy 5-4 loss to Levante.

So what changed this season?

Well, Iniesta left. And Valverde switched back to a 4-3-3 system. The 4-4-1-1 worked for a talent-averse Barcelona, but this was now a squad loaded with attacking firepower (remember Malcom?) and he knew it.

The 4-3-3 meant putting Coutinho into central midfield, and, well, that comes with risks as Brazil found out during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Coutinho may work hard enough to be a central midfielder in a three, but his defensive positioning simply isn’t up to par and his presence makes the team defensively vulnerable.

A rough guide to how Barcelona looked on the ball in Valverde’s 4-3-3; note how much space Busquets is asked to cover.

Added to this was Messi playing “right-wing” which in actuality meant Messi playing as a roaming no. 10. This left the right-flank open to counter-attacks, which often ended up pulling Rakitic over to cover (especially as Sergi Roberto roamed forward).

What this did was open up a gaping maw ahead of the Barcelona defence with only Busquets there to defend it. Imagine if, in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf had to defend a bridge as wide as it was long instead of a tiny foot-bridge? The Balrog would have walked right on by the wizard before he could have raised his staff.

Combine these two things and Barcelona had some serious defensive issues to start the season. They were routinely getting eviscerated on the break, and somehow managed to go four Liga games without a win – failing to beat Girona at home and losing to Leganés of all teams.

Much like 2017/18, Valverde withdrew any semblance of risk and returned to his beloved 4-4-1-1. This meant Coutinho was back into that hybrid role he played in his debut season, except he had been training all summer and pre-season to play centrally. Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of confused performances from the Brazilian. He still managed to score the odd goal, away to Spurs and home to Real Madrid, most notably, but he wasn’t playing well.

Then an injury took him out of commission for a couple of weeks, and unfortunately for him in that couple of weeks, Dembélé began to find his feet. Yeah, remember Dembélé? Well in a 4-3-3 you have both he and Coutinho playing together, but the 4-4-1-1 means that only one of them gets into the XI. In 2017/18, this was mostly Coutinho, and then this season the same. But the injury gave Dembélé a chance, and when he scored a 90th-minute equaliser in a top-of-the-table clash away to Atlético Madrid, that was the chance taken.

A rough guide to how Barcelona look on the ball in Valverde’s 4-4-1-1; not quite as offensively impactful but much more defensively secure.

After that goal, the Frenchman’s form has taken off: he bagged an assist the very next week vs. Villarreal got a goal and an assist in the city derby against Espanyol, and then scored a wondergoal against Spurs in the Champions League. This meant Coutinho had to watch on from the bench for four straight games, and his chances of getting back in for major games was slim.

Sure, he played against Spurs when the big guns were left out. And hey, he started against Eibar when Ousmane Dembélé was rested and then against Leganés when Messi was on the bench; but it was clear that when Dembélé, Messi and Luis Suárez were fit, they’d start. Coutinho couldn’t play on the right of a 4-4-1-1 as he had in 2017/18 because Dembélé is much more of a forward than Andrés Iniesta was, so the side would again be too open and easily penetrated.

It seemed like the lack of tactical cohesion at Barcelona coupled with Valverde’s own risk-free approach to football has clipped the Brazilian’s wings, but when Dembélé picked up an ankle injury it suddenly thrust Coutinho back into the side for every and all games. This should have been his chance, an uninterrupted run of games on the left of an attacking trio with plenty of room to ease himself into form.

But he’s absolutely failed to do anything remotely like that. After his four games on the bench, he has now started his last five games and yet has scored just twice in that time (both in the 6-1 Copa del Rey victory over Sevilla).

Worse still is that besides the odd pass or dribble, he’s barely had an impact on the games he’s played in. It’s baffling to witness a player as obviously talented as Coutinho play in a position that suits him so well and yet get so little joy out of opponents.

This isn’t like earlier when he simply wasn’t getting the minutes he needed, nor when Ernesto Valverde pulled a switch-a-roo with his position. The world’s third-most expensive player with over 400 career games was wandering around the pitch looking even more lost than the 21-year-old La Masia graduate Carles Aleñá who’s played 21 senior appearances for club and country.

It’s clear that Coutinho is suffering from a crisis of confidence, but it’s a crisis with no clear solution. Usually a player low on confidence just needs games, but he’s had plenty (playing with the footballing cheat code Leo Messi, too!) and sometimes you have to give a player more time to adapt to a new country and league, but Coutinho hit the ground running in 2017/18, so that wouldn’t suddenly be a problem now.

To make matters worse, Ousmane Dembélé is fit again. He made a cameo appearance at the weekend and will surely be favourite to start the big matches against Lyon, Sevilla and the Clásico double header against Real Madrid that are coming up in the next month. Once again, Coutinho has been grounded and is forced to stare up at the sky, praying for the ability to finally take flight for Barcelona.

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