Philippe Coutinho vs Thiago Alcântara: Who would be a better fit at Barcelona?
The rumour mill has been very busy with Barcelona since the departure of Neymar in August. The club's chase of Philipe Coutinho was well publicized by the media, with the player himself acknowledging that he wanted the move to happen.
"What happened was a job offer and, in life, sometimes you get interested, sometimes you don’t, and in my case, as everybody knows, I got interested, my family too."
"But as I’ve always said, it’s a great honour to receive an offer from such a great club like that, but it’s also a great honour being here - Liverpool is great club worldwide."
Coutinho revealed the above in a telling interview with ESPN Brasil. Whether he would be the best fit for Barcelona after paying a massive sum in the region of £132 million is debatable though. Reports have emerged recently that Barcelona could be in the hunt for former player Thiago Alcantara, who in many fans' and critics' eyes would be a better fit, and he is said to be available at about £80 million, according to The Sun.
Let's compare the two talented midfielders and analyse what they could offer to the team.
Style and Position of Play
Thiago Alcantara has been playing for Bayern Munich since 2013, before which he was touted to be the next big thing at Camp Nou. An experienced customer playing big games, he has reached the semi-finals of the Champions League consistently with both Bayern and Barca.
"Xavi was my mirror. By doing simple things, he would make great things happen." - Thiago Alcantara
A brilliant passer of the ball like his idol Xavi, Thiago can either play as a central midfielder or an attacking midfielder. He had league-high interception stats in the Bundesliga in the 2016/17, reinforcing his impeccable defensive acumen. Under Carlo Ancelotti last season, he played as a controller in midfield, stringing an average of 95 passes per game. This season, his role has changed with him completing around 68 passes a game as Bayern haven't replicated last season's cohesiveness.
Under Carlo Ancelotti, earlier this season, and now Jupp Heynckes, Bayern have generally adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation. Thiago has either taken the left-sided defensive midfield position or the central attacking midfielder position.
When played as a defensive midfielder, he is expected to make crucial interceptions and tackles to break down attacks. Along with this, he is excellent at spraying long balls forward toward the wings from his defensive position, something that was often seen when Neymar was at Barcelona with Messi always on the lookout for him. As a central attacking midfielder, he is a useful goal scorer and sets up many goals with his close control and incredible vision from the deeper errors.
Philippe Coutinho moved from Inter Milan to Liverpool for £8.5 million in 2013. That deal was definitely a massive steal, as Coutinho has gone on to become the mainstay at Liverpool. A hefty £130 million-odd bid from Barcelona was not enough for Liverpool to let go of one of their best players, such is his importance to the club.
Defensively his stats are extremely similar to Neymar during his time at Barcelona, not requiring to do much defensive work for Liverpool. He is a decent passer of the ball with around 83% pass completion which would tend to increase if he does sign for Barca, due to their style of play.
Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have generally adopted a 4-3-3 formation with Coutinho either deployed as a winger or a left midfielder. He tends to drift in and play through balls or take long curling shots at goal. For Brazil, he has almost always been deployed as a left midfielder behind Neymar except for the final qualifier against Chile where he was utilised on the right wing. He has scored vital goals for Liverpool and Brazil from the left wing.
How would the two players fit into Valverde's system at Barcelona?
Ever since he was appointed the manager of Barcelona, Valverde has tinkered about with the style of play and formations. He has tried a handful of formations - 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 last weekend against Athletic Bilbao. The main point that has been observed is that no left winger plays generally for the side.
Jordi Alba and Iniesta take the burden of all the attacking work on the left flank, with Suarez drifting out wide sometimes to help out. Suarez seems to be taking sort of a David Villa role during his time at the club, with Messi weaving magic through the centre. Only when Denis Suarez has been included in the side, he has taken up the role of a left winger.
The last match against Bilbao saw Andre Gomes take up the job of the left wing, and although he was not disappointing, he is not the right fit at that position. Another important difference from Enrique's Barcelona has been their high pressing strategy which has helped them a lot.
Keeping the above points in mind, Philippe Coutinho would slot right into this Barcelona team on the left-hand side. Some might argue that Ousmane Dembele may take up the left flank once he is back, but as seen in his 3 appearances he played only on the right flank. Coutinho could take up the place of Neymar, but this again could work adversely for Alba who has been a revelation this season because of the freedom he is allowed on the left side.
This could be Iniesta's final season with a large number of appearances so once he stops playing as regularly, Coutinho could even take place of Iniesta on the left side of midfield. With Messi's movement, Coutinho's passing could be an interesting prospect for the Blaugrana.
Where would Thiago fit in? The Spaniard can be used in all three formations that Valverde has used. As seen, he can be deployed in two positions in the 4-2-3-1 formation. In the 4-3-3 formation, he can either play for Iniesta or Rakitic. He would be a boon for Valverde as he perfectly fits the bill to employ the high pressing strategy due to his interceptions and tackles.
He can also play as any of the central midfielders in the 4-4-2 formation, with him being the creative mind in midfield ably supported by Sergio Busquets. Also, the passing game seems to be more evident under Valverde which would call for a player like Thiago, especially once Iniesta stops playing regularly (to be honest, he doesn't feature all that regularly these days). He is very good at taking on players and at holding the ball similar to Iniesta, hence he would be an appropriate replacement for the legend.
Barcelona have missed a controller in midfield since the departure of the legendary Xavi. Coutinho has a very good attacking instinct, but as Ousmane Dembele has been added to the ranks at Barca the requirement of a left-sided winger is not of utmost importance.
Andres Iniesta is ageing, hence to fill the massive void that he will leave along with the unfilled Xavi-sized hole, Barca must look to bring in a midfield controller who can provide defensive and attacking impetus, as well hold the ball with calm and composure. Thiago Alcantara would arguably be the ideal replacement and could turn out to be a midfield lynchpin for years to come. But can they re-sign him?