Barcelona end the year on top of the La Liga table and remain in contention for Copa del Rey and Champions League success.
Lionel Messi has been his usual phenomenal self, Luis Suarez picked himself up after a dull start and Ousmane Dembele is beginning to do justice to his price tag.
The Catalan giants have netted 13 goals in their last four league games and Marc-Andre ter Stegen hasn’t conceded once in those fixtures. The Champions league last-16 draw could have been much worse and the Copa del Rey last-16 draw is friendly too.
However, it would be overly optimistic to conclude that everything is going smoothly for the entire squad. If a finger has to be pointed, it points to Philippe Coutinho, the €160 million star signing from Liverpool who has not lived up to the mark after completing almost one year at the club.
We examine what’s going wrong statistically and tactically to find what could be the reason behind Ernesto Valverde benching the Brazilian in the last few games.
WHAT DO THE STATS SAY?
With Valverde deciding to employ the former Liverpool man as a left-winger, he has had to compete with Ousmane Dembele for a spot in the starting line-up. The pair have enjoyed equal minutes in the league so far but the Frenchman has offered much more.
Coutinho has plundered four goals and provided one assist in the league, yet both are bettered by Dembele’s 10 goals contributed to (seven scored and three assisted). It’s worth noting that most of Dembele’s goals have come at a time when Barcelona were either behind or level.
At 1.8 key passes per game, the Frenchman has proved to be more decisive than Coutinho (1.1). Dembele is the better dribbler and with 2.1 dribbles per game, he is well above the Brazilian, with his statistic standing at 1.4 times per game.
In terms of numbers, Coutinho is lagging behind his director competition in the starting XI.
WHAT ABOUT THE TACTICS?
Statistics don’t paint the whole picture but the colour can be added with context. Sadly for Coutinho, it does not look good for the Brazilian in this department, too. The 26-year-old can function on the left side of a three-man midfield and a left-winger in a front-three. Despite the versatility, he is yet to win the Valverde’s favour in either position.
Valverde’s system requires a midfielder with a high workrate; someone who can run across the length of the pitch to retrieve the ball and this is not exactly Coutinho’s forte. The former Athletic Bilbao boss prefers control in midfield and shielding the defence rather than taking risks and playing a creative midfielder without the burden of defensive duties. By natural selection, Arturo Vidal gets a nod over Coutinho in such a situation.
Coutinho at left-wing has not clicked either. He operates best from the half-spaces and seldom goes wide to stretch play. This should have been a boon for Barcelona, given how Jordi Alba likes to push high and cover the wide areas. However, Coutinho has failed to deliver even when he drifts to the centre.
There is no denying he has had his moments and is definitely an elite talent. But for a player of his quality, the Brazil international could do much more.
Playing him wider is not a solution either as it would restrict Alba’s movements and the left-back is having a stellar season so far.
All four of Dembele, Suarez, Messi and Coutinho being thrown into the starting line-up was never going to work but Valverde needs to find a solution if the Catalans are to challenge for the Champions League.
IS VALVERDE PROTECTING COUTINHO?
This may be a little bit of a stretch but this theory should be discussed.
Valverde could be polishing the sword for what lies ahead – a tough challenge against stronger enemies. Coutinho was sidelined due to injury for three weeks in November and that was when his form took a huge dip.
So, the Barcelona boss could be protecting the Brazilian and allowing him to transition back into the team.
Peaking at the right time is crucial in football and peaking in the months of April and May can help Coutinho play a vital role in fetching Barcelona all three trophies.
These are the most probable reasons why Coutinho is not a regular face in the Barcelona starting line-up.
It’s true that he is a world-class player. However, it is also true that he has performing below his potential this season.
One can say that Coutinho will be a crucial squad player and can play a vital role towards the business end of the season.
Jordi Alba has been one of the best players for Barcelona this season, having picked up four assists in the league and scored one goal. Last night against Celta Vigo, the Spaniard was arguably the best player on the pitch.
However, a vital cog like Alba sees his contract with the Catalan club run out in the summer of 2020. The left-back is concerned that there are no talks of a renewal, yet.
“It doesn’t just depend on me, as it also depends on the club,” he said when asked about a new contract after the game.
“When I signed for Barcelona it wasn’t for money.
“I came here for the feeling and because it is my home.
“In the end, it’s not enough to say that I’m a great player, as actions also matter.
“A deadline? When the contract ends.”
Barcelona finished 2018 on a winning note by overcoming Celta Vigo through first half goals from Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi, but there was a sense of anti-climax at the end as the home side struggled throughout the second half after dazzling in the first.
There was a distinct lack of fluency to Barca’s performance after the break, with Celta enjoying more dangerous attacking moments but lacking the final ball to really get themselves back into the game.
Here’s a look back at an ultimately somewhat unsatisfying game at the Camp Nou with the three major talking points.
BARCA BLOW HOT AND COLD
This was initially perhaps the most ‘pure’ 4-3-3 system fielded by Barca so far this season, with Messi cutting inside from his starting position on the right wing, Luis Suarez rampaging through the middle and Dembele offering good width down the left, while Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba motored up and down the flanks and the central midfield trio of Arturo Vidal, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic provided control in the middle.
It was a nice-looking set-up, demonstrating a solid balance between attack and defence and a good variation of attacking options on both sides of the pitch and through the middle. But the performance dipped badly in the second half, with Celta looking far more comfortable as Barca lost all their fluency.
Valverde reacted by changing to a 4-4-2 formation, bringing on Arthur and Philippe Coutinho to provide more control in midfield but that failed to materialise and there was always a sense that Celta could have really mounted a dangerous comeback if key striker Iago Aspas hadn’t limped off through injury.
Funny thing is, Valverde looks to have found his balance in the Vidal, Busquets, Rakitic trio.— Franklin. (@asantekente_) December 22, 2018
‘MSD’ STILL STRUGGLING TO CONNECT
Arguably the most spectacular performance delivered by the ‘MSN’ front line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar came against Celta Vigo three years ago, in a game made famous for the ‘penalty assist’ between Messi and Suarez which resulted in a 6-1 victory with all three members of the forward line getting on the scoresheet.
So it was appropriate that Celta were again the opposition for a game which showed perhaps more than any other just how promising the new forward line of Messi, Suarez and Dembele – but also just how much they are struggling to seriously connect on a consistent basis.
The first half was excellent, with Dembele justifying his ongoing status as a starter ahead of Philippe Coutinho by capping a bright 45 minutes with the opening goal – his third in the last four games. But the French winger was an almost invisible presence after his team’s fortunes turned after the break, having very little involvement before manager Ernesto Valverde decided to replace him with Coutinho midway through the second half.
But Coutinho did little to suggest he is ready to challenge for a starting spot as his dip in form continued, and Celta took advantage of the lack of pace in Barca’s forward line following the removal of Dembele by pushing high up the pitch and leaving plenty of space behind them, knowing that there was little danger of anyone beating them for speed.
So the game perhaps ended up posing more questions than it gave answers, with little clarity over the strongest attacking line-up available to Valverde.
ANOTHER CLEAN SHEET SHOWS STRONG FOUNDATIONS
At the other end of the pitch, though, there was a positive achievement as Barca kept a clean sheet for the fourth consecutive league game, also succeeding in limiting a dangerous Celta to very few shots on goal – although the loss of key man Aspas through injury certainly helped in that respect.
Barca’s success in La Liga last season was built on solid defensive foundations, with just 29 goals conceded in 38 games and nearly a third of those being shipped in the final four games when the title was already wrapped up.
The start of this season was a different matter, with a run of 11 consecutive league games without a single clean sheet preceding the current run between September and late November. But now a corner appears to have been turned, with Gerard Pique in particular looking far more authoritative and his partnership with Clement Lenglet developing all the time, while Vidal has added more steel since being added to the midfield.
So although the team’s attacking play does not always hit the heights, with the improvement they have effected in defence perhaps that won’t really matter – as, indeed, it did not in this game.
Not sure who signing of the season is, Arthur or Lenglet, both unbelievably good— Faisal 🇵🇸 (@CampNouFaisal) December 22, 2018