Sunday night’s brief substitute appearance at the end of his team’s 2-1 victory at Getafe strengthened the predominant feeling that Coutinho has lost his way, and is currently far from the exciting creative spark who lit up the Premier League during his last season or so with Liverpool.
Against Getafe, Coutinho appeared as a substitute for the last ten minutes in place of Ousmane Dembele, who had delivered a decent performance full of cutting edge and attacking threat. His replacement, meanwhile, did practically nothing other than dribble into blind alleys and appear to be on a completely different wavelength to Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
Of course, he only had a few minutes to impress and it’s very difficult for any player to make a meaningful in such a short space of time. But the problem is that Coutinho in the last few weeks has done very little to merit more minutes, and is perhaps fortunate that Rafinha and Malcom have been injured to receive any playing time at all.
Coutinho’s problem is that his role within the team has remained undefined and uncertain. Specifically, the question is straightforward: is he a winger, or is he a midfielder? Is he filling the gap left by the departure of Neymar, or Andres Iniesta?
At Barcelona, this matters more than most other clubs. Elsewhere, Coutinho would not have to be the ‘new’ anyone and could instead forge his future as a hugely talented player in his own right. But Barca are not other clubs.
Their traditional playing style is so based around specific roles for specific players that it is even called ‘play by position’ (juego de posicion), granting far less autonomy for individuals to find their own way – especially in a team where everything, understandably, is geared towards getting the most out of Messi.
So Coutinho, like fellow big-money signing Dembele, hasn’t been able to simply turn up and carve out a personal niche on the basis of his undoubted ability and his past achievements with Liverpool and Brazil. He has to fit in, and at the moment it’s not clear exactly where that will be.
Connected to this is the problem of Coutinho’s style of play. Although his technical level is very high, he does not really fit into Barca’s fast passing and sharp movement methods. He prefers to take more touches of the ball, creating space for himself through dribbling past opponents. He could be called a ‘run first’ rather than a ‘pass first’ player, a luxury which is granted only to one man at the Camp Nou…and he comes from Argentina, not Brazil.
He also has a tendency, perhaps instilled by his many years in England, to take the most direct route possible towards goal. ‘Attack, attack, attack’ is the mantra in the Premier League, where making a sensible but ground-yielding backwards pass to ensure the retention of possession is met with groans of frustration rather than appreciative applause. Again, this does not fit in with the Barca way, which regards ownership of the ball as non-negotiable.
For all these reasons – positional uncertainty, too many touches and excessive directness – Coutinho is currently floundering rather than flourishing. It is now two months since he last produced a strong performance (at Inter Milan in the Champions League, on 6 November), and he has fallen well behind Dembele in the battle for a regular starting place.
None of this means, however, that he should be dismissed as an overpriced failure. Coutinho’s 12 months in Spain have been flecked with some memorable highlights such as the opening goal in October’s Clasico thrashing of Real Madrid (his most recent goal), and he is clearly a much better player than he is showing at present.
What he really needs now is simply to play. He will only settle into a defined role and start to fully understand what is demanded of him by spending time on the pitch – which will also allow him to rebuild his fragile confidence.
Fortunately, opportunities should be just around the corner. With a busy schedule including midweek Copa del Rey ties, and the need for coach Ernesto Valverde to rotate his squad ahead of the decisive games in the spring, Coutinho should get plenty of starts. It is a chance he needs to take. He has the talent, that cannot be doubted, and if he can develop a deeper level of tactical understanding he can still be a major success at the Camp Nou. But the next few weeks could be crucial.
Ivan Rakitic has urged Ernesto Valverde to extend his stay at the Camp Nou after 18 months of domestic domination.
The Barcelona boss had recently revealed talks over a contract extension at the club will be conducted later in the season amid speculation he could leave the club at the end of this campaign.
The Croatian midfielder – who has been a key part of Valverde’s system – wants the former Athletic Club coach to stay at the Catalan club beyond 2020.
“The coach’s future is a question for him and the club, but as players we are all very happy with him,” Rakitic told reporters, as cited by Marca.
“The job he and his coaching staff are doing is really good and I believe he is most likely to stay here and continue (beyond the summer).
“As players we will all work hard and what they decide to do will be their decision, but they will come to the conclusion which is best.
“We had to work hard for this win at Getafe because this is a very complicated league, every team is difficult and there are many challenges to come.
“This is one of the most difficult games of the season, they are very compact and it was a real battle.”
Barcelona opened up a five-point lead at the top of La Liga after a perfect weekend saw them take a 2-1 victory from a tough trip to Getafe, following on the heels of other favourable results including another loss for Real Madrid.
It wasn’t a classic performance from Ernesto Valverde’s men in the suburbs of Madrid but first half goals from – who else? – Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were enough to seal three valuable points which put the Blaugrana in a formidable position.
Let’s review the main talking points from the conclusion of a fabulous weekend for the reigning title holders.
BARCA GET LUCKY
Barca really should have fallen behind early on, when an angled left-wing cross from Vitorino Antunes was volleyed home at the far post by unmarked Getafe striker Jaime Mata. But referee Guillermo Cuadra controversially disallowed it, ruling that another home team forward, Angel Rodriguez, had pushed Clement Lenglet as the ball came into the middle.
The ‘push’ looked close to non-existent even on close-up television replays, and there certainly looked to be much less contact than another early incident when visiting midfielder Arturo Vidal appeared to nudge Nemanja Maksimovic as another cross was delivered. But Cuadra strangely refused to use VAR for either incident, so Barca survived with the scoresheet intact and took full advantage when Messi opened the scoring just a few minutes later.
And coming on the same day that nearest rivals Sevilla and Atletico Madrid both dropped points in a 1-1 draw while Real suffered a shocking 2-0 home loss to Real Sociedad – during which they were denied a seemingly clear penalty by another confusing non-use of VAR – the dice are certainly falling Barca’s way in the opening stages of the new year.
MESSI AND SUAREZ MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Despite that let-off Barca still had to go on and win the game, and once again their superstar strike duo of Messi and Suarez did just that with a pair of superbly taken first half strikes which ultimately proved to be enough for the points.
The goals were very different in nature but both required exquisite technique, firstly as Messi ran onto a half-saved shot to convert from a very narrow angle, making it look easy as he ran at full pace to squeeze his shot inside the posts. Then Suarez watched a dropping ball just outside the area and waited patiently before swiveling to thunder a magnificent right-footed volley which flew past Getafe keeper David Soria, completing a one-two punch with his captain.
The gulf in finishing quality was laid bare in the second half, when home team striker Mata embarked upon a mazy dribble which took him past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to create a glorious chance, but he ruined it by awkwardly slicing his shot high and wide.
Messi and Suarez would have almost certainly scored from the same position, and the presence of those two formidable goalscorers is by far the biggest reason for Barca’s comfortable position at the top of the table.
VALVERDE HAS BREATHING ROOM TO ROTATE
The favourable results encountered this weekend have given Barca boss Valverde the perfect opportunity to practise full-scale squad rotation over the course of the next few weeks, which will be packed full of non-stop fixtures assuming his team continues to progress in the Copa del Rey.
Ter Stegen can be relieved at times by Jasper Cillessen in goal; new signing Jeison Murillo (and, when he’s fit, Thomas Vermaelen) can deputise for Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet at the back; Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo can share playing time at right-back; Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic can do likewise in the midfield pivot; Rakitic, Roberto, Arturo Vidal, Carles Alena and Arthur can take turns in midfield; Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom can swap in and out on the wings.
The only players who really cannot be replaced, and will have to play more games than most, are Suarez, Messi and Alba. Barring any moves in the January transfer market – which certainly should be considered in the left-back position, there are no decent back-ups within the squad for any of those players, although Coutinho and Dembele could occasionally both start to relieve one of the front two.
A full-blown rotation policy would be risky and could result in some points being dropped, but Barca have those points to play with and it’s unlikely that either Sevilla or Atletico – and certainly not Real – will string together a long winning run.
Even with 19 games still remaining, the league is now half-won. So Valverde should look further ahead and start planning for the resumption of the Champions League, when he will need his players to be refreshed and focused, rather than tired and jaded. It’s time to be bold and show full faith in the whole squad.