As Barcelona were down 5-2 against Bayern Munich last August, Philippe Coutinho came on in the 75th minute with a point to prove. After arriving for a club-record fee in January 2018, his stint at the Catalan capital never lived up to its lofty expectations. He spent last season on loan with Bayern – winning the Treble along the way – and now had the perfect chance to show his home club what they were missing.
Only seven minutes after coming on, Coutinho assisted Robert Lewandowski’s goal to make it 6-2. Minutes later, the Brazillian scored a brace to make it 8-2 but respectfully refused to celebrate.
That cemented Barcelona’s worst defeat in almost 50 years and set the stage for a revitalized and re-energized return for Coutinho.
The following piece continues Barça Universal’s annual “Season in Review”, where we analyse and examine the manager and player’s past campaigns. In the end, we conclude with a rating out of ten, summing up how well or underwhelming their season was.
Coutinho’s fourth – and second full season – with the Blaugrana was meant to be one of redemption. His season-long stint with Bayern Munich in 2019/20 didn’t do enough for the club to gain any transfer offers for him, so he returned to a Barcelona team filled to the brim with attacking options.
With Bayern, he tallied 11 goals and nine assists in 38 appearances. But, while the counting stats looked fairly impressive, he failed to cement a starting spot with the Bavarians.
Back in Barcelona, Ronald Koeman reportedly counted on him for the upcoming season, and there was no shortage of hope – not expectations – that Coutinho could redeem himself.
An expectation-free return
Brought in as a replacement for Andres Iniesta (or Neymar Jr.), Coutinho’s time with Barcelona was plagued by unattainably high expectations and a tactical set-up that prevented him from thriving. Typically a number ten or creative attacking midfielder, Coutinho spent most of his time playing as a wide-man in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.
Koeman’s appointment as manager promised the introduction of a new formation: 4-2-3-1. The Dutchman’s rationale was to utilize as many of Barcelona’s attacking talents as possible, maximize Frenkie e Jong in a double pivot, and let Messi thrive in a free role within the team structure. Consequently, there was some hope that it would allow Coutinho to play in his preferred position.
Furthermore, Coutinho arrived with a new physique, having gained a reported four kilograms of muscle mass during his spell at Bayern, and increased defensive work rate. The pieces for success were all there, only questions about where he would play remained.
A bright start
Appearing in all three of Barça’s pre-season matches, Coutinho was played as a number ten and excelled. Against Gimnastic, he scored a penalty, versus Girona, he had a goal and an assist, and he earned the Man of the Match against Eibar in the Joan Gamper trophy match. Granted, this was all during pre-season, but he rode this hot-form into the official season.
In the opening match of the season against Villarreal, Coutinho played as an attacking midfielder behind Lionel Messi. Both South Americans typically occupy the same spaces on the pitch, dropping deep to pick up the ball and hovering around the penalty box, looking to create for others. In the past, it has often resulted in congestion, but against Villarreal, the presence of Ansu Fati on the left as a forward runner offered more space and balance.
Consequently, Coutinho played a wonderful game, setting up Fati with an assist early in the first half. He finished with two shot-creating actions, a 94% pass completion rate, and three successful dribbles.
The following week against Celta Vigo, he put up a similarly impressive performance. Once again, he assisted Ansu Fati’s opening goal, and he passed to Messi, who forced an own-goal.
In the third match of the season, Coutinho scored his first Barcelona goal in over two years. Throughout the outing, he continued to impress with his dribbling and creativity, helping lift the creative burden off of Messi’s shoulders.
One common thread throughout all these performances was the abundance of runners in front of him. As shown throughout his career, when given space, balance, and full creative reign, Coutinho thrives. In the pre-season, he had players like Konrad de la Fuente making forward runs and Martin Braithwaite occupying more advanced positions. And in the opening matches, Ansu Fati fulfilled this role. Evidently, both of his assists were to the 18-year-old.
By the time of the first El Clasico, Coutinho’s season was off to a promising start, and he already had four goal contributions in five club appearances.
Speaking on Coutinho’s resurgence, Koeman had the following to say in early October, “[…] He’s a very good player. That’s it. […] My job as a coach is to get the best out of every player. And that starts by putting them in their position. I think that generates more confidence.”
Old demons and a season-ending injury
While things got off to a bright start, it was unfortunately short-lived. The emergence of Pedri and a few sub-par performances saw Coutinho curiously placed back out-wide. As a result, the 29-year old struggled to make an impact and was cast aside.
The eye test does more than enough to show how out-of-place Coutinho was, but so does a statistical comparison. Before the first international break in late October and early November, Coutinho had two assists and two goals, averaged 54 touches per game, 47 passes per game, and nine pressures. Additionally, he started in all six matches, averaging 67 minutes per game.
In the following eight matches, each of those tallies decreased. Notably, he scored once, amounted only 3.5 pressures per game, and averaged nearly twenty fewer minutes per game.
In all aspects, Coutinho was already out of the picture, but his season would come to a permanent end not long after.
On December 29 against Eibar, Coutinho suffered a knee injury that would keep him out for the entire season. It seemed that Barcelona’s number 14 would end his campaign with only 14 appearances.
Season rating: 4/10
Unfortunately, Coutinho could not have the resurgent season that Griezmann did – or even to a lesser extent Ousmane Dembele. While the “Little Magician” got off to a hopeful start, the demons of his past shortcomings with Barça resurfaced, not to mention a lengthy injury spell, earning him a 4/10 rating.
His creative spark has never been a problem, rather his fit on the pitch alongside similarly-profiled players like Messi and Griezmann. Culés have often wondered if Coutinho could play as an interior in a 4-3-3, but unfortunately, that chance never came.
Perhaps if Coutinho remained healthy, Barça’s season could have ended differently. Admittedly, his form was sub-par before his season-ending knee injury, but he still could have remained a valuable rotation piece for a squad that desperately needed more options in midfield, even if the fit was sub-optimal.
Coutinho has now made 90 appearances for Barcelona, and according to multiple reports, the Catalans would owe Liverpool an extra €20 million should he reach 100. With the Blaugrana desperate for cold, hard cash, Coutinho’s future is truly up in the air. If the Brazilian leaves, hopefully, he can regain form and reassert himself on the world stage. If not, hopefully, he has enough firepower to continue to try and prove doubters wrong.