Philippe Coutinho: The Struggles of Barcelona's Record Signing

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 17, 2019

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 13: Philippe Coutinhoof FC Barcelona the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and SD Eibar at Camp Nou on January 13, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

One of the standout moments of Barcelona's 3-0 win against Eibar in La Liga at the weekend was a piece of artistry from Philippe Coutinho.

The decision by Barca coach Ernesto Valverde to start him came as a surprise after the Brazilian lost his place in the team's starting XI for the team's previous four league games.

Coutinho justified his selection, though, by providing an assist for Luis Suarez's first goal and linking well with some neat footwork for Messi's goal—which was the 400th goal scored by Messi in the Spanish league.

Amid the goals, Coutinho embarrassed Eibar's midfielder Gonzalo Escalante by dinking the ball over him with a "sombrero" close to the edge of Eibar's box in the second half.

It was an audacious piece of skill, and it contributed to the urge for some of Barcelona's fans to serenade his name from the stands.

It must have been music to his ears, as Coutinho has been hit with a crisis of confidence over the winter months since injuring himself against Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League group stages.

A lot is expected of Coutinho. He arrived at Barcelona after a protracted transfer saga a year ago with a reported price tag of €160 million (including add-ons), which makes him the most expensive player in the club's history.

He started well, jumping into the vacuum left by Neymar Jr.'s departure and Ousmane Dembele's injury struggles, scoring an impressive 10 goals in 22 games last season, and he also had five assists.

This season, however, his returns have dipped, with six goals scored in 24 competitive games. With Valverde uncertain about the best way to layout his players, Coutinho has become expendable. He can't squeeze into Barcelona's midfield because Valverde has preferred Arthur—who is becoming a fan favourite—and Arturo Vidal.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 13: Philippe Coutinho of FC Barcelona reacts during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and SD Eibar at Camp Nou on January 13, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Because Messi and Suarez are untouchable up front (no team in La Liga this season has scored more goals than the pair), it's become a battle between Coutinho and a rejuvenated Dembele for the remaining spot up front, and at the moment, Dembele is in pole position, according to Valverde's assistant Jon Aspiazu.

"For Barca, I prefer Dembele to start because the French player is a winger," says Ramiro Martin, Barcelona-based author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol. "That's Dembele's natural position on the field. Coutinho, on the other hand, is neither a winger nor an interior midfielder. That's to say: Coutinho is not Dembele, but neither is he an Iniesta or a Xavi. And that leaves him with few chances to shine at Barca."

The comparisons with Andres Iniesta, a club legend who left for Japan during the summer after 16 seasons in the first team, have been a heavy burden for Coutinho to bear.

When Barcelona signed Coutinho, Barcelona's former sporting director Robert Fernandez stated he believed Coutinho to be "the ideal substitute for Iniesta". It was an error of judgment. They are different types of players.

"Coutinho doesn't have Iniesta's characteristics," says Martin. "He is not an organiser of play. He is a playmaker. He's a player who inhabits three-quarters of the pitch and from there changes the pace in the attack towards the opposition goal.

"His departure from Liverpool also had to do with those characteristics. Jurgen Klopp did not need a playmaker. He wanted hard-working wide players like Sadio Mane, for example, and very defined midfielders. Coutinho did not fit into those definitions."

It is notable that Liverpool have prospered since Coutinho's exit. The club went on to reach last season's UEFA Champions League final and are sitting on top of the English Premier League table.

He hasn't been missed at the English club, and he is searching for a meaningful role with Barcelona. The problem is that the Catalan club already have a No. 10—Messi.

"Coutinho is powerful in one-on-ones and he's got the skill to cut in from wide, which has been a deficit in Barca in the last few decades, and his qualities allow him to play in different positions," says Joaquim Piera, a journalist with Diario Sport.

"The challenge for Barcelona is to create a position custom-made for him like Barca did with Messi. It's obvious, though, there is not a trainer in the world who can make a team with two big tactical roles very well determined and personified—in this case one for Messi and the other for Coutinho.

"What I believe about Coutinho is that he is a huge player, the kind of player that makes you win big titles, and he has been part of very competitive teams, but with Messi there, the challenge is for the trainer to know how to create a place for him.

"If it were down to me, I would make him play in the interior left midfield position, but that was Iniesta's position, and if you compare Coutinho with Iniesta, unfortunately that's going to end badly for Coutinho."

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Like Iniesta, Coutinho is introverted, but this personality trait shouldn't impede his performances on the pitch, notes Piera, who cites other Barcelona legends who did their talking on the pitch. 

"The key is that he can be a great player, for example, the leader of a team like Liverpool—where he triumphed in a league like the English Premier League, which is extremely hard physically," says Piera. "I don't think it's a weakness that he's introverted. Iniesta and Xavi were for years star players and they were introverted."

"Coutinho seems to be a timid guy, introverted, but then in football terms, he's a player that never hides," adds Marcel Beltran, a writer with Panenka, a Spanish football magazine based in Barcelona.

"He asks for the ball and takes the main role in attack. He's a player with personality—the opposite perhaps with his personality off the pitch. If he continues to play brave football, I don't see why he could not triumph at Barca."

The problem is that Coutinho's confidence has dipped.

"Everybody agrees it's a psychological matter more than a football one," says Beltran. "That Coutinho is one of the most talented players of Barca is undisputed. Behind Messi, he's on the second rung of players who can be decisive for Barcelona. He started well, but his injury against Inter Milan put the brakes on his progress. 

"When he returned to fitness, he found a situation totally different to before because Dembele's luck turned around. That affected him psychologically, to the point where he lost his main virtues.

"Coutinho used to be a vertical player, with a strong personality—all that, suddenly, was not part of his game anymore. We saw him complicating his play unnecessarily, hurrying, and trying too hard. Little by little it ate away at him. He found himself in a place where he was questioned by a lot of Barca's fans."

According to Beltran, before Coutinho moved to Barcelona, Barca's fans were worried about his injury profile—he picked up several injuries at Liverpool, which affected his rhythm. Now, however, the fear is that he could suffer from the psychological strain of playing at Barcelona.

The ghost of Andres Gomes—the talented Portuguese midfielder whose career took a nosedive at Barcelona and who admitted to enduring a "hell" and loss of confidence at the club—lingers.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 08:  New Barcelona signing Philippe Coutinho poses for a photograph with his new shirt as he is unveiled at Camp Nou on January 8, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. The Brazilian player signed from Liverpool, has agreed a deal with the
David Ramos/Getty Images

"I don't know if he's going to be another Andre Gomes, but there are two remarkable things about Coutinho, which are worrisome," says Martin. "He has problems with being a starter with Brazil and with Barca, something that seems to be a constant in his career.

"He does not seem to have the mentality of a 'crack' [a star player]. As it's said in Spanish: 'he doesn't believe it.' He doesn't play with the confidence with which cracks play. You either have that or you do not have it."

We have been here before. Cesc Fabregas returned to Barcelona, the club of his youth, in 2011 after several gilded years with Arsenal—where he was made club captain in London at 21 years of age—but it didn't work out.

Fabregas failed to nail down a starting position at Barcelona and was sold on to Chelsea after three seasons. Beltran rules out the prospect of Coutinho being sold—despite rumours linking him to Manchester United, per Liam Prederville of the Mirror.

"No, the club won't sell him," says Beltran. "We're far from seeing a scenario like that unfold. Also, recently we had a lot of doubts about Dembele, but his form has improved a lot.

"Barca fans have changed a lot their opinion of Dembele. The same can happen with Coutinho. If however in two seasons the club weren't convinced about him, a sale would be possible."


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz