Barcelona are studying the development of Sassuolo head coach Roberto de Zerbi as they continue to discuss whether to continue with Ernesto Valverde, according to reports.
De Zerbi, 39, earned praise at relegation Benevento last term for his possession-based, attack-minded approach. This style has continued at the Neroverdi during 2018/19, who sit a comfortable eight in Serie A.
Corriere dello Sport have stated that such performances have led the La Liga champions to consider him as a potential replacement for Valverde. The current Barca boss’ contract expires on June 30 and talks are yet to commence about a renewal.
De Zerbi came close to replacing Quique Setien at Las Palmas last summer.
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.”