Philippe Coutinho was one of those players destined for greatness – a player that possessed enough flair, personality and skill to make it all the way to the top, and more importantly, to stay there for years to come.
And looking solely at his Liverpool stint, it is easy to notice why one might think that. After all, the Brazilian maestro was topping all the charts at Anfield and filling the Kopites’ hearts with joy in the process. The stats make for a pretty compelling case.
In his final season at Anfield, he netted 12 goals and tallied eight assists in all competitions for the Reds, making him a standout performer alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. In England, the world was at Coutinho’s feet and all he had to do was stay there. But he couldn’t.
Not when he had a dream to chase and Barcelona were knocking on the door in pursuit of a player that seemed destined to fit perfectly. How could he not? He had every tool necessary to succeed anywhere, not just in Catalunya.
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But fast forward a couple of years and his agent is forced to make bold claims about Blaugrana’s most prised possession in history, their gloriously expensive number seven that was bought to fill the void of the legends long gone and the ones yet to call it a day. Coutinho has now reached a point where he’s surrounded by intense speculation of a Nou Camp exit, harking back to March.
What seemed like a match made in heaven soon turned into a horror show. But why did it even happen in the first place?
To put it simply, Coutinho has no clear place in this Barcelona squad and was, unfortunately, a panic buy that only happened because the Blaugrana had just lost Neymar and needed a big name to weather the storm.
When the transfer was completed, the ex-Red was hailed as the next Andres Iniesta – a player who would jump into the midfield, fill that huge void and be the team’s creative spark for years to come. But the upper management (or just Ernesto Valverde) thought differently. Despite him seemingly being brought in for that specific role, he was actually never really used in midfield.
In fact, out of 76 games he has totalled for the Catalans, he has been deployed in a midfield role in only meagre eight games but still managed to bag two goals and two assists. For some reason, Valverde decided his place was in a wider role, serving mostly as a left winger.
This was Coutinho’s most predominant position under Klopp as well but in total equated to only two thirds of his appearances. And in any case, this was a much different role than that of a left-winger for Barcelona.
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Coutinho loves to cut inside and leave the sprinting and overlapping to his more pacy teammates because he himself is not someone who will beat his man regularly and conquer acres of space behind the opposition’s defence. No, he is a player that likes to hold the ball, dribble, roam and set up plays, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Once he vacates his wide position, Jordi Alba can promptly overlap and the duo can combine for some deadly plays. In that scenario, Coutinho stays in his half-space and is always in shooting distance of the goal. Sounds brilliant, does it not? So why doesn’t it work at Barcelona?
Simple – because of Lionel Messi. At Liverpool, Coutinho was the main man; he was the guy around whom the play would revolve around; he was the player that was the centre of attention and at the heart of everything good the Reds created on the pitch. He would start at the left-wing, sure, but would then cut inside and act as the team’s number ten, roaming the final third with creative freedom.
But at Barcelona, he simply cannot do that because that specific role is taken by a different number ten. And to Coutinho’s detriment, it is the best number ten on the planet and quite possibly, of all time. So naturally, Valverde is definitely not going to sacrifice Messi to accommodate Coutinho but he won’t have second thoughts about sacrificing Coutinho to accommodate Messi. It’s as simple as that – the survival of the fittest.
Coutinho had no choice but to survive as a pure left-winger since his preferred position was already filled. But, as we have already stated, with his tendency to hold the ball and not really exploit the free space himself, he is not built to be a prolific wide man. The other solution was to put him in a midfield three, which is what Barcelona do prefer as a general rule of thumb.
But that idea was never truly tried or tested in full or at least not for an extended period time. And despite some decent returns, Valverde has never given Coutinho a proper chance to shine in the middle of the park. Was it because the Brazilian was poor in a midfield trident or was it maybe because he had better options? The answer lies somewhere in the middle and the proof for that actually arrived from none other than Liverpool’s own.
It’s alleged by a Liverpool insider that Klopp always doubted Coutinho’s ability to work well centrally in a 4-3-3 system. In short, the Brazilian doesn’t have the lungs for that role, while he doesn’t have the pace or the strength to play as a pure winger. And just from that we can conclude that his Barcelona career was in ashes before it even started.
Coutinho is a fantastic player in his own right but also one that is being used out of position and one that has no obvious place in the team. Maybe the board thought he could be transformed into a winger over time. Or maybe they just panicked after losing Neymar so Coutinho served the purpose of a marquee signing that would calm down any unrest amongst supporters.
Either way, it has come at the cost of the player’s career, and now, the only way for him to revive it is to leave. The alternative would be to make him the key man in front of Messi but that’s not really happening any time soon, no matter how good of a player he actually is.
Not every story in football ends in glory and not every dream ends up coming true, and unfortunately, Coutinho’s Barcelona tale is no exception.
Whether he’ll stay or leave remains to be seen but from the looks of it, there is only one right choice to be made here.
The sooner we all accept that, the better.