By guest contributor Emile Avanessian (@hardwoodhype).
Even with an inflated price, expecting Philippe Coutinho to step in already equipped with the hive mind of the Barcelona lifers would have been criminally unfair, but he did integrate as seamlessly as one could hope, playing without ego and understanding the ethos of the club. Over the second half of last season he made 18 La Liga appearances, during which he scored eight goals, provided five assists, completed roughly 87% of his passes, and attempted shots (2.1/game) and made key passes (1.6/game) at a rate on par with any non-Messi member of the team. He made an additional four appearances in the Copa del Rey, scoring twice and assisting on another goal, but was ineligible to take part in the Champions League, having made five appearances (with five goals and two assists) for Liverpool.
At season’s end he was off to Russia and the World Cup, a member of the supporting cast – albeit a high-profile member – that would facilitate Neymar’s rise to the pantheon of Brazilian legends. The World Cup ended in bitter disappointment for Brazil, and while Neymar played better than most reports would have you believe, it was Coutinho who was Brazil’s best player, cementing his place in the top tier of the world’s attacking talents. Every bit as important as he is for Barcelona, he exhibited the rare ability to thrive as a secondary superstar alongside a singular talent whose mere presence sucks the air out of a room.
Heading into this season, Ernesto Valverde announced that the 4-4-2, the club’s primary formation in 2017-18, would give way to the 4-3-3 that’s been synonymous with Barcelona since the days of Cruyff, and is held dear by the fans. Suffice it to say, the early returns have proved encouraging. Coutinho’s pace, versatility and outrageous skill will allow him to play in either of the “3’s”, whether partnering up front with Messi and Luis Suarez or, more likely in light of Ousmane Dembélé’s strong start, in midfield alongside some combination of Busquets, Rakitić, Arthur and Arturo Vidal. The latter has been the case in the season’s opening weeks, with Coutinho on the left side of midfield, much closer to the center of the formation than he was on the wing in a 4-4-2.
Coutinho possesses a gift for the pass-and-move game that Barça use to great effect in the middle of the pitch. Bringing him further inside ensures that he is on the ball during buildup and attacks more frequently than if he were on the wing. He is also in closer proximity to the areas in which Messi operates, creating link-up opportunities in the attacking third. Additionally, this position allows Coutinho a wider variety of dribbling lanes, from which he can attack the box himself (which he’s done regularly, and with purpose) or look for a through ball. All while maintaining the option to drift out wide when the midfield becomes congested. In six appearances thus far (five in La Liga and one in the Champions League), Coutinho has netted a goal, provided two assists, completed roughly 90% of his passes and, again, has proven as aggressive in attack (3 shots and 2.2 key passes per game) as anyone outside of Messi.
It is this role – theoretical left-sided midfielder, in actuality a left-sided attacker – in which he will be deployed and expected to thrive. Ostensibly acquired to replace Iniesta in the formation, Coutinho is not a like-for-like replacement. However, as a physical and technical marvel of the same caliber, he does address certain glaring shortcomings that have been exploited in recent Champions League campaigns. His aggressiveness as an attacking fulcrum from midfield, infiltrating the opposition box with a greater willingness to unleash a shot, but also as a willing and eminently capable playmaker, will be counted upon as Barcelona strives to return to the latter stages of the Champions League.
Coutinho’s impact in this role was on display against PSV Eindhoven in Barcelona’s Champions League opener. He turned in a fantastic 81 minutes, completing 92% of his passes, and contributing an assist and 4 key passes, and taking three shots himself in the dominant 4-0 victory. Beyond the numbers, he created chaos, abusing defenders with such pace, aggressiveness and maneuverability that PSV began dedicating multiple defenders to him in the attacking third. It wasn’t the full Messi treatment, but it certainly qualified as special attention.
These, of course, are not the performances on which Coutinho, and this iteration of Barcelona in general, will be judged. The ultimate test consists of conjuring such performances, against the world’s best teams, with a season (or a Champions League run) on the line. Until Barcelona is faced with that situation, the assessment will remain incomplete. It is encouraging, however, to see Philippe Coutinho so quickly adapting to his new role, and providing proof of concept.