Rumours are brewing from within the Catalan media, and the future seems bleak for a certain Philippe Coutinho. Following a bright start to the campaign, many alluded to this potentially being his redemption season with Barcelona; however, as time passes, it seems like anything but.
As per a report relayed by SPORT, Barcelona are more than open to letting go of the Brazilian in January, as given the current climate they find it difficult to pay his wages, and for him to sit on the bench no less. Finding suitable destinations for the midfielder may come as a hurdle, however.
The solution seems simple, and Barcelona might as well just play him, but the ex-Liverpool man has found himself in a battle to none other than 18-year-old Pedri Gonzalez. And truth be told, there seems to be only one winner in this battle right now; Pedri.
It is only early days, but the 18-year old is looking like twice the player Coutinho is, regardless of position, especially given Koeman’s strict demands for the team. What are the key differentiating factors between the two?
Blend with the squad
Pedri and Coutinho are polar opposites of one another. While the youngster has won the trust of his manager in large part thanks to his decision-making abilities, his Brazilian counterpart seems completely bereft of the same. The Spaniard shows a far superior game reading ability, and it goes well beyond his years.
There are several basic traits in football, and especially in the central midfield, that any player, and explicitly a Barcelona player, needs to have in their arsenal.
These come in knowing whether or not one is adequately positioned to receive a pass by surveying their environment and evaluating the potential of them advancing with the ball, or the probability that they might be dispossessed the second they receive it. In addition to this, it is imperative that the Barça midfielder know whether or not the potential recipient of the said pass is capable of profiting off of it. Being a midfielder is like a game of chess; every movement has to be calculated, as they each have a wide array of consequences.
All these are things Pedri has shown complete mastery of, and he is able to read his teammate’s moves to near-perfection, despite never having been trained in the La Masia. His quick thinking ability and his dexterity when it comes to benefiting the collective are light-years ahead to Coutinho, who seems more and more like a tactical liability.
The Brazilian has several vices that are all too recurrent and serve to no nothing more than destabilise the team. Unlike Pedri, he seldom receives the ball knowing what to do with it next, and constantly finds himself giving the ball away cheaply, or passing the ball to someone who simply has no plan whatsoever on what to do with the ball once it is at their feet.
Coutinho is also becoming more and more infamous for his deplorable body orientations. He is slow-witted and has plenty of inefficient tactics that are little resourceful for the team. A pattern of play all too common in his game, to the discontent of Barcelona supporters, is his excessive number of touches on the ball.
Again, because he receives passes knowing not what to do once he receives them, he often slows down play, giving the opposition that one extra second to react, and just like that, he transforms what should have been a relatively simple touch and go move into an unnecessarily overcomplicated scenario.
Pedri, on the other hand, utilises every touch of the ball to create an advantage for the collective. Be it out wide or centrally, the young Spaniard makes positional as well as numerical superiorities on the ball. If he is not upping the tempo of the match, then he is maintaining it to a rhythm that will take the team into the final third. This maturity in his play is one of the make or break situations for Koeman, and Pedri is a clear winner in this regard.
Creativity and Versatility
It would take little more than a quick search on one of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to find Culés in the thousands coming to Coutinho’s aid. Whenever he performs poorly, the common excuse is that he has been deployed out of position and that this, and only this, is the reason for his shortcomings. That, sadly, is nowhere near the truth.
This is too simplistic a way of thinking and it diverts the attention away from where it should be; on Coutinho. In addition to his poor game reading ability, the Brazilian shows a high level of incompetence when asked to perform in more than one role. This sort of one-dimensionality is surely going to be the end of him, and while Barça may be in the search for buyers, it is rather off-putting to have someone who costs so much, consistently produce so little.
He, for instance, has shown a complete ineptitude at playing in any position that is not the central attacking midfield. When deployed as a winger or even an interior, he is essentially flat-footed. So much so that the mere sight of him there, by opposition managers, take Alvaro Cervera, rejoice at how easy it would be to thwart him.
It also matters little where he is as he offers next to no creativity on the ball. Assists are often deceiving, as they give the impression that one is effective at creating chances, but Coutinho’s problem is one in which he does not create enough. At just 0.57, Coutinho has overperformed his Expected Assists by a whopping 1.5xA. His inefficient methods of playing give a better understanding of why this is, but in brief, he does not attempt enough of anything in spite of how high up the pitch he is, and what is expected of him from those areas.
Not to mention that the 28-year-old has created just one big chance in the league while missing five of the same. This ranks him second only to Antoine Griezmann in the squad, and joint-fourth in the league. This means that he is underperforming his xG tally by -1.81 goals, while Pedri is overperforming it by +0.08. A tiny number which goes a long way.
Pedri also offers much more in terms of both his versatility and creativity, which can be immediately proved by his two big chances created and 0.8 key passes per game, both stats twice as much as Coutinho’s.
Another metric, the Expected Goals Build Up, measures the overall involvement of players in the build-up to a goal, excluding shots and key passes and puts it into a number. It is used to quantify the contributions of players such as Sergio Busquets, who often do not make it into the assists category of stats, despite their heavy involvements in the middle of the park.
In this particular stat, Pedri is, statistically, more than four times involved than Coutinho in possession phases leading up to a shot and is also just over twice as good at creating goalscoring chances for others than the Brazilian. Why so? While Coutinho is inept at participating outside his comfort zone, Pedri gets himself involved in as much as he possibly can. Though unlike the Brazilian, he benefits the team with his actions.
From the flanks, he attempts to provide width when asked to; however, once he notices the likes of Jordi Alba overlapping or Lionel Messi in a promising position, he is more than ready to adjust his own to give either of them space, and in such a manner that it maintains rather than disrupt the rhythm of the play. The teenager is also more than open to be deployed as a forward, an interior, an attacking midfielder, and against all odds, even as a pivot.
His altruism, selflessness and “team first” attitude go a long way, and this seems like a path Coutinho has no intention of taking.
One need only watch the game against Real Sociedad to get a glimpse of the off the ball decisions that Pedri makes that give him the upper hand over Coutinho. One instance that won the hearts of many was the youngster’s darting run in the final fifteen minutes of the game to deny La Real what would have been an undeserved equaliser. He succeeded in preventing Alexander Isak from scoring, but at his own expense as his body smashed into the frame of the goal, essentially wrapping around it.
It surely hurt, however, he could care less about the pain, as his team was better off for it. While Coutinho is more involved defensively than he was previously, he is a far cry from Pedri, who outclasses him in this regard, almost too easily. In terms of defensive statistics such as interceptions, tackles and pressures, Pedri supersedes Coutinho at rates of two, three and even seven-fold.
This takes us back to the key elements of a central midfielder, one of which is defensive work. This non-negotiable task that anyone in the central, offensive or defensive midfield has to take up, is sometimes treated as expendable by Coutinho, and it certainly will only serve to infuriate Ronald Koeman.
Given all there is to see, it is no surprise that Barcelona are willing to let go of their most lucrative signing yet. For all Coutinho was worth, he does next to nothing to justify his hefty price tag, and it has happened for long enough for Barcelona to accept seeking him, perhaps for even lower than half the asking price. As it stands, Philippe Coutinho does not seem to have a place in this squad; not over Pedri, anyway.
Stats via Sofascore/Understat.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.