Bayern Munich or Barcelona; what does the future hold for Philippe Coutinho?
The tales of ruined reputation is not an odd entity in football. It is something football enthusiasts all over the globe have become very familiar with. During his Liverpool days, it appeared implausible that Philippe Coutinho would ever find himself in a list of outcasts, but unfortunately, he is the latest one to endure a big fall from grace.
Judging by the superlative standards he set for himself in the Premier League, Coutinho's output has been largely underwhelming since joining Barcelona. The Brazilian's subsequent loan move to Bayern Munich provided him with a breath of fresh air, yet he is some way off his vintage days. While his counterparts from Liverpool have achieved things at the greatest level, one wonders if Coutinho regrets how his career is panning out.
Digging deep to find reasons for his failure, one can realize it's not all down to him. He is enormously talented but it turned out that Barca tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. In fact, Barca never provided him with a role that actually suited him.
Coutinho ran out 52 times in the famous colours of Barcelona, 38 of which were starts. Ernesto Valverde tried too many unfamiliar things with him and sadly ended up offering very little. He scored 11 goals for the Catalan giants and also bagged 7 assists during that period.
One goal involvement every 165 minutes may sound reasonable for a mediocre club but it was just not enough to get Barcelona fans to be happy with. He was brought in to emulate, if not replace Andres Iniesta, but Barcelona asked him to fit into Neymar's boots. Later it turned out that 'Coutinho is not Neymar, but neither is he an Iniesta or a Xavi'.
The plummeting stocks of big names like Isco, Mesut Ozil and James Rodriguez, who are actually graduates from the same midfield school to which Coutinho belongs, suggests the archetypal No. 10's are a no longer indispensable part of football. Managers these days emphasise on work rate, hence the issue here seems physical rather than tactical. There is greater reliance on strength and speed, more work is done off the ball and little do the aesthetic aspect matters. Look at modern-day midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne, Hakim Ziyech, even James Maddison to an extent and it becomes evident. They all possess an additional No. 8's dimension to their games. No wonder traditional No.10's, the Coutinho's of the world are increasingly being considered a luxury rather than a necessity.
Occasionally, some teams tend to devise a system to fit their best players rather asking players to fit into predefined roles. Take the example of Eden Hazard, who was ripping apart Premier League defences in Chelsea colours, operating in a free role. At Real Madrid, he was asked to play as a rigid old school winger, a role which didn't go well with him. Over the years, Barcelona has built a team around Lionel Messi. The Argentine wizard hardly presses or tracks back, but he used his free role to devastating effects, scoring and setting up goals at will, thereby humiliating his opponents.
In a similar way, Coutinho is too good to pin down to one position. The hefty share of Coutinho's exploits at Merseyside came when he was functioning in a free role in midfield. Unfortunately, there aren't many team's in the world that could afford to allow multiple players to enjoy the free role. Such experiments usually turn out as disasters, just like Coutinho-Messi duo failed to blossom. Neither of them was willing to adapt their game to accommodate each other. The curious case of break down of Dybala-Messi pair in the Argentine national team isn't a different thing either.
The immediate expectation placed upon the Brazilian by the Catalans, along with unfamiliar and unforgiving surroundings piled up his miseries. He actually bagged more winners medals in six months at Camp Nou than he did in his entire five years stay at Anfield. Despite adding a few spectacular goals to his name, it felt like he would never fit into the Barcelona system for good. Each game brought with it hope that Coutinho would ultimately transform into the creative genius people used to watch in the Merseyside, but it never turned to fruition.
Fast forward eighteen months, a loan move with a purchase option was proposed for Coutinho, which would take the most expensive midfielder in the world to German juggernauts, Bayern Munich. On the face of it, this looked like a healthy piece of business for all the three parties involved.
In his first four starts, he registered three assists and two goals- a start which was reminiscent of his Anfield days. However, his honeymoon didn't last too long. A series of poor results followed, including a drubbing at the hands of Frankfurt. Along with Nico Kovac, Coutinho was also a subject of criticism after his drop in performances.
The former eventually lost his job and was succeeded by Hans-Dieter Flick. Coutinho was once again deemed surplus to requirement when the interim manager opted for more tactically sound, physical midfielders like Leon Goretzka to operate centrally with the experienced Thomas Muller at No.10.
However, a couple of inspiring performances seemed to spark something in Coutinho as he responded strongly. He produced a career-best 5 goal involvement including a hat trick against Bremen. As of now, he has netted 7 goals and as many assists to his name. Furthermore, the way his manager is utilizing him and the way his teammates are acknowledging him are all signs of encouragement. He has certainly improved, but it's too premature to assume from his streak of performances that he is back to his creative best.
At the age of 27, he desperately needs a career revitalization. Again from what we learnt, the potential and talents of Coutinho would never be realised at Barcelona. Even if there is a managerial change, we don't think there would be a drastic change in Barcelona's playing style nor their philosophy. A host of new players including Frenkie de Jong and Arthur have firmly established themselves in the first team, with a few academy starlets, including Carles Alena, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati knocking on the doors.
However, Bayern could provide him with a golden opportunity to unleash himself in the creative, free role, something he cannot do in Barcelona as long as Messi is in the team. The illustrious era of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery has come to an end and Thomas Muller could soon follow their footsteps. The new look squad need that extra bit of quality and experience, and that's exactly what the little magician from Brazil has to offer. Having said that, his performances over the upcoming six months and the next manager to take over the reins at Bayern would determine his fate.
Chatter about Coutinho's future is already trending in the gossip columns, but all he needs to do is to keep his head down and continue to improve. Many Brazilian prodigies who were tipped for greatness, including Adriano, Alexandre Pato, Robinho, are all victims of the 'peak early end early' phenomenon. Let's hope the once most in-demand prospect in European football, Philippe Coutinho doesn't add up to this list.Published 23 Dec 2019, 20:24 IST