What is going wrong for Philippe Coutinho at Barcelona?
In January 2017, Philippe Coutinho signed a long term deal with Liverpool that made him the top earning player in the Reds' squad. After signing the contract, Coutinho said in a press conference that he wants to become a Liverpool icon like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. He promised to stay for long years in Liverpool and work hard to add trophies.
Six months later, when Barcelona's interest in Coutinho emerged, the Brazilian ruthlessly handed in a transfer request. Reds boss Jurgen Klopp and the owners FSG group handled the situation very well, and made sure that Coutinho was not sold in 2017.
In January of 2018, Barcelona offered a bid of around £142 million - a sum that is not easy to reject. The Reds sanctioned the transfer and with that fund, they have brought in Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton, who has completely reshaped Liverpool's defense at present.
Coutinho was signed by Barcelona as a long term replacement for veteran Andres Iniesta. Coutinho had a splendid first six months at Barcelona. Alongside Iniesta, Coutinho played 18 league games during the second half of last season. The Brazilian had 8 goals in 18 games last season, and 10 in 22 games in all competitions.
Coutinho's second season in Spain has not gone as well as expected so far. Despite starting the season brightly, Coutinho has fallen out of favor under Ernesto Valverde in recent weeks. Coutinho started eight games in first 11 games of the season till October, but a small injury sustained in November has been the reason for downfall.
Coutinho's injury in November has paved the way for Ousmane Dembele to get into the squad, and the Frenchman has excelled in the squad since then, with a number of outstanding performances. These performances have defied many reports linking the French winger to a move away from Barcelona. During last weekend's game against Leganes, both Dembele and Coutinho started on either side of Luis Suarez, but it was Dembele who stole the show with a magical performance.
In Liverpool, under Klopp, Coutinho was given a midfield playmaker role that provided him the freedom to roam. After the departure of Coutinho last January, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain got into the squad to take that role and has excelled. Under Rodgers, Coutinho was used either as an attacking midfielder, or as a left winger. But the problem in Barcelona is that Coutinho has never excelled in any of these positions.
The signings of Arthur from Gremio and Arturo Vidal from Bayern Munich last summer have handed Coutinho stiff competition for a starting berth in midfield. The emergence of academy product Carles Alena recently is also found to be a barrier that Coutinho should get past for a starting place. Since the injury sustained against Inter in Champions League, it is clear that the coach Valverde prefers Arthur over Coutinho in the midfield alongside Sergio Busquets as the 22-year old has shone for the Catalan side in recent weeks.
Coutinho has just four goals in 18 league appearances for Barcelona this season, and six in 27 games in all competitions, which is a statistic that should not be expected from a player of such caliber. Coutinho's last goal for Barcelona came against Levante in the first leg of the Copa del Rey round of 16 game from the penalty spot. After the game, Coutinho's team mate Busquets claimed that the Brazilian is 'lacking confidence'. Coutinho's last league goal came against Real Madrid in October.
The major problem with Coutinho in Barcelona is similar to the issues Andre Gomes suffered through during his time at Barcelona. Considering the transfer fee paid, Coutinho has been caught on many occasions where he has pressurized himself to hold the ball. Unlike what he did at Liverpool, Coutinho is afraid of playing killer passes, whereas he has been quite happy to play safe back passes to be relieved of pressure.
It is pretty clear that considering Dembele's recent form, Valverde will not deviate from a front three of Lionel Messi, Suarez and Dembele, particularly for the big occasions.. Arthur has established himself as a starter in midfield, playing the deep lying midfielder role. The battle should be between Vidal, Alena, Rakitic and Coutinho to register the final spot of three man field alongside Busquets and Arthur.
It has now been reported Dembele is out for the next two weeks following a minor injury sustained during the last match day. This provides a massive opportunity for Coutinho to prove himself at the Catalan club. It is quite early to declare Coutinho as a flop at Barcelona, and as such it is quite unlikely that Barcelona will try to offload the Brazilian in summer, unless funds are needed to sign a long term replacement for Luis Suarez. But as of now, Coutinho should utilize Dembele's absence to reach his old form, and mark his place in the line up effectively.