This past weekend, in a match when Lionel Messi made history by becoming the first player to score 400 goals in La Liga, Barcelona defeated Eibar 3-0 at Camp Nou, reclaiming a five-point lead over second-place Atletico Madrid in the league table.
It was also a fixture where we were reminded of Philippe Coutinho’s quality–something that has been too frequently missing in the first half of the season.
Making his first start in the league since Dec. 2, the Brazilian looked confident in his preferred role on the left wing, linking up very well with Luis Suarez (most notably in the 19th minute, when his one-two with the Uruguayan opened the scoring) and showing a solid combination of hard work and creativity.
After the match, Ernesto Valverde recognized the performance but stressed that his current contributions were not quite at the level we've become accustomed to seeing yet.
“He is a player who has given us a lot, who gives us a lot and who has to give us a lot more,” the Barcelona manager said.
These were pointed words, but the criticism has been valid, as Coutinho has struggled to incorporate himself as a regular contributor this season with only 10 starts and four goals in the league. His last goal in La Liga was last October against Real Madrid.
But as we saw on Sunday, Coutinho has been slowly responding, and it may have come at the perfect time as Barcelona prepares for a tough upcoming schedule. Champions League is set to resume with the start of the knockout stage, and Valverde knows a healthy, productive squad is essential for the second half of the campaign in which his team is still competing on multiple fronts.
But Coutinho knows he needs to give much more, as these recent performances (vs. Eibar and against Levante in Copa del Rey’s round of 16) have only shown glimpses of hope against mediocre opposition. In the bigger picture, his overall contribution to the Blaugrana this season has been subpar.
So what has happened to Coutinho? Can he return to the level we know he is capable of reaching? And, perhaps more importantly, is Barcelona even a good fit for him?
These questions are all somewhat astonishing, especially given it was only a year ago the sky was the limit for the 26-year-old. He got his way, leaving Liverpool to join Barcelona on a lucrative deal, making him the third-most expensive transfer behind Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.
When the transfer occurred, the astronomical transfer fee seemed justifiable. After becoming the all-time leading Brazilian scorer in the Premier League, with 54 goals in more than 200 appearances and tallying double digits in all competitions in each of his last three seasons with Liverpool, Coutinho left after a very productive spell.
Eventually, Mohamed Salah took over for Jurgen Klopp’s side and Coutinho embarked on a new journey in Spain, one that started well. He finished the 2017-2018 campaign with 10 goals and six assists for Barcelona. Given Andres Iniesta’s imminent exit, the last few months of last season were also a tactical test for Valverde to see where the Brazilian could fit on the field. Would he be Iniesta’s direct replacement, where he could be molded into a dynamic central midfielder who could move the attack forward? Or would he fight Ousmane Dembele for a place on the left wing and a part of a three-headed monster with Messi and Suarez? The answer was a bit of both, as Coutinho was placed almost everywhere in the midfield and attack so the manager could have a clearer picture of his attributes by the summer.
Then, the World Cup arrived, and in the group stage, Coutinho was sensational. He was not just a star for Brazil, he was the star. Out of the Seleção’s five goals in Group E, he scored two and assisted on another. In the final group match against Serbia, he sparked Brazil by delivering an exquisite ball to Paulinho, who opened the scoring. It was one of the smoothest assists of the tournament.
In the quarterfinal against Belgium, Coutinho delivered a somewhat similar ball to Renato Augusto, as Brazil reduced the deficit but ultimately bowed out in a 2-1 loss.
Despite Brazil’s exit, Coutinho ended his summer on a positive note and entered Barcelona’s preseason with a better understanding of who he needed to be for his new club. But fast forward to the present, and although it’s too premature to label Coutinho’s time with Barcelona a failure, it’s been head-scratching to witness his decline.
It should be noted that part of this slump in performance has to do with a hamstring injury he suffered against his old club Inter Milan in November, which kept him out for three weeks, but injuries and statistics aside, his overall demeanor has not looked right. Ignoring his last game against Eibar, Coutinho has looked lethargic and almost robotic for a few months, which is an alarming way to describe a player who is known for inventive performances.
The injury also gave way for Dembele to take over on the left wing, while Arturo Vidal and Arthur slowly forced themselves into bigger roles in the midfield, meaning there was no room for Coutinho. Once he returned, Valverde’s strategy had been set and Coutinho was placed lower in the pecking order.
Looking past the injuries, the reasons for Coutinho's troubles are also technical, as his principal, positional strengths–having the ball close to his feet and with a constant desire to take on players–are actually the antithesis of what Barcelona represents. With the national team, Tite's tactics provide him more room and time to dictate play (similar tactics that made him successful at Liverpool), but with Barcelona, ball movement is the priority, and the longer you have the ball, the less you control the game. Of course, there is room for individual creativity–this is a team that features Messi, after all–but it’s the end result of movement and triangular passing, and not vice versa. It’s not a coincidence that Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong, a player who lives to pass and move, remains firmly on Barça’s transfer radar.
Last week against Eibar, Coutinho was excellent, because he paid attention to what Barcelona demands. His touch, vision and movement were crisper and were a vital component of Barcelona’s first two goals. On Thursday, as he gets ready to face Levante in the second leg of their Copa del Rey showdown, the hope for this ultra-talented Brazilian is to continue following Valverde’s tactics and to prove to his manager that he is undoubtedly worth the price tag. Otherwise, this could be an interesting summer in the transfer window, perhaps one featuring another fresh start for one of the world's most gifted players.