Barcelona shipped record-signing Philippe Coutinho off to Bayern Munich on a one-year loan following a woeful stint at the Catalan club.
The Spanish giants deemed it fit to allow the player to move – with an option for Bayern to buy – after he did not come close to justifying his hefty price tag of €145m in the 18 months since he left Liverpool.
Having made the switch to Barcelona in January last year, Coutinho garnered five assists and eight goals, including a hat-trick in a losing cause against Levante during his first half-season at the club. While these numbers are not extraordinary, they did not necessitate the sirens as it was his first few months at the club and he was settling in.
Last season, however, the Brazilian scored just five goals and created two in the 34 league games he featured in. He peaked when he scored in the Champions League against Manchester United but reverted to the downhill trajectory ever since.
So where did it all go wrong for Liverpool’s best player from the 2016/17 season? We take a look.
The price tag of €145m attracts huge expectations and this incites pressure. Once the pressure seeps in and affects performances, recovery becomes an arduous task.
It did not help the 27-year-old that Spanish fans are not the most patient. He succumbed to the immense pressure before ultimately reaching the point of no return.
Coutinho was Brazil’s best player in the 2018 World Cup where he played as a left-sided central midfielder in a 4-3-3. He scored twice, set up two more and contributed an average of 2.6 key passes per game.
In the 2019 Copa America, Coutinho assumed a more central role, playing behind Roberto Firmino in a 4-2-3-1. He scored twice, added one assist and was a crucial element of the title-winning team.
Brazil boss Tite brought the best out of the midfielder by employing him in a familiar position and playing to his strengths.
Jurgen Klopp – who is tactically superior to Valverde – could also get the best out of the player despite playing him out of position on certain occasions. Although Coutinho prefers to play in midfield, he did not disappoint when he played on the left wing under the German.
At Barcelona, it appeared that the coach was not clear about what he had in mind for the record signing. In the first few games, Coutinho played on the right wing, with Lionel Messi very close to him in the half-space. As expected, this set-up did not work out, for this would mean that two players of similar style had to play very close to each other and one of them eventually paid the price.
Valverde shifted Coutinho to the opposite wing, a relatively familiar position. In theory, this should have been a good move as it would allow the player to stretch play and cut-in for his trademark long-range shot that have hit a fair few nets in the Premier League.
But the defenders in La Liga were better prepared for what awaited them and closed him down comfortably, reducing his impact from the half-spaces.
With Jordi Alba – one of the most attacking full-backs in the world – marshaling the length of the flank on one side and Messi playing central, Coutinho was tied to space in between with very little freedom.
Summing up, Valverde was terrible at incorporating Coutinho to the squad. The Brazilian had to play in an incompatible system and had his talents wasted.
Coutinho’s lack of confidence in front of goal
The player himself deserves a chunk of the blame. While tactical frailties can be attributed to the incompetence of the manager, Coutinho has only himself to blame for some aspects of his game.
The Brazilian underperformed his xG (expected goals) last season. He scored just five goals in the league at an xG of 7.84 – which means, all things being equal, he should have scored at least three more. Never in his Liverpool career has the midfielder ever scored fewer goals than what his xG would suggest.
Position, system, and tactics mean very little in front of goal and it’s up to the player to make it count. Coutinho failed to do much justice to the chances he was presented with.
And so it begins.
If you want to see how unloved Valverde is in cyberspace, just type two words – Valverde Out – into the Twitter search function and you will be assailed by a barrage of angry opinions, with everyone from Torquay to Timbuktu furiously lamenting Valverde’s inability to lead the squad and fervently demanding his immediate firing.
So far, the group of fans who will really decide the cautious coach’s fate – those who actually attend games – have stayed largely on his side.
A few half-hearted whistles echoed around the Camp Nou during his pre-season speech before the friendly against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago but on the whole Valverde remains, among the majority of Barca fans, if not exactly loved then more or less tolerated.
That, though, could soon change. Just like those raging bulls on social media, the club’s members and season ticket holders will judge Valverde not only on the basis of what happens this season, but through the prism of his back to back humiliating failures in the Champions League.
Those local supporters may be rather more forgiving than their cyberspace brethren, and place more value in the consecutive La Liga titles gained under Valverde, but they are also finding it tough to move on from the team’s European exits and their remaining patience in the current coach is rapidly running out.
This is Valverde’s problem: he has no credit left in the bank. All the trust that he earned through his successes on the domestic front were instantly eroded when his team succumbed to their 4-0 capitulation against Liverpool in May. Where there was once respect, now there is suspicion. Where once there was a willingness to overlook the occasional bad result, now there is an eagerness to jump onto any setback as proof that he must leave.
Ever since he was rather surprisingly retained by president Josep Maria Bartomeu during the summer, the criticism he is facing now was inevitable. It was only a matter of when Valverde would find himself besieged, not if. He is living on borrowed time, with even the most loyal and forgiving of fans starting to turn against him.
The words ‘Roma’ and ‘Anfield’ will continue to haunt Valverde throughout his Camp Nou reign, or at least until he has the chance to lift the big trophy aloft in celebration. The question is, though, whether he will survive for long enough to make that happen, and the coming weeks will be crucial.
The next test for Barca comes with their first home outing of the league campaign, against Real Betis on Sunday evening.
Already, that game is assuming the look of a must-win encounter for Valverde, who would be hard pressed to survive the furore that would inevitably result from being left with zero or one points after two games, at least five points off the lead.
It is common wisdom within footballing circles that manager’s fates are decided by home games. Away defeats are witnessed in person by far fewer fans and are therefore leave less impression, and Valverde is significantly helped by the fact that nearly all Barca’s bad results under his leadership have been inflicted on their travels.
Next weekend, though, roughly 80,000 expectant Barca fans will be gathered in their own cathedral, and expectant is the word: they will expect victory, they will expect it to be delivered in style and they will expect consequences taken if those outcomes do not materialise.
Valverde might be on safer ground in real life than he is on the Internet, but even the Camp Nou crowd will only allow themselves to be pushed so far. A bad result next weekend could well be the limit.
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique conceded that Athletic Bilbao put Barcelona in their place after losing 1-0 to the Basque team in their La Liga opener.
Bilbao legend Aritz Aduriz, who will retire at the end of the season, came on as a late substitute and had only been on the pitch for a minute when he met Ander Capa’s cross with an acrobatic volley to net an 89th-minute winner at San Mames.
While he accepted the defeat, Pique said he would prefer to lose at the beginning of the campaign rather than at the business end of the season.
“San Mames is always very difficult and today the competition put us in our place,” he told Movistar.
“We weren’t ourselves. From the start, they pressed us a lot and physically they were better, although in the second half they dropped off a little.
“In the end, winning or losing comes down to details, and we leave with a defeat that will be good for us, because it’s better to lose now than at the end of the season.
“We came from pre-season, there are new people… sometimes, you prepare for a game in one way and it doesn’t happen as you expected.
“In the first half, they had one clear chance, [Inaki] Williams’ one, and we had Luis hit the post.
“We played more in our own half, but that’s what you expect at San Mames. In the second half, we played more in their half, but details are details and one killed us in the end.”