On the back of a sensational preseason with Barcelona shortly followed by a remarkable start to the new campaign; Philippe Coutinho won back the support of Culés worldwide. He was Blaugrana’s highest contributing player in terms of goals and assists ahead of La Liga’s return, and in the Primera División, a goal and two assists in his opening three games marked the start of what should have been, a redemption arc for the Brazilian.
Since the game against Sevilla at home, however, Coutinho has seems to be edging closer to his deplorable performances in the 2018/19 campaign, rather than anything next to that which was seen in his Liverpool days. Could his inconsistent past be coming back to haunt him, or is this just a hiccup on his path to success?
Statistical Analysis of Philippe Coutinho
Decision making is integral to the success of any footballer, and the zones in which the Copa America winner chooses to take shots at goal as well as create for others is indicative of how much of a threat level he as an individual can pose the opposition. As a footballer playing as high up as Coutinho, one of the most important facets in his arsenal should always be maximizing efficiency.
For the past 7 seasons in domestic leagues, this one included, Coutinho has taken a total of 556 shots on goal and scored 56 goals, giving him a shots to goal ratio of roughly ten to one. For most footballers, and especially attacking midfielders, this sort of return is anything but bad however breaking down these stats further, you start to spot a problem. Of the 556 shots he has taken in that time frame, 333 have been taken from outside the box, 208 from inside the penalty box and 15 in the danger area, or the 6-yard box.
Of the 333 shots Coutinho has taken from outside the penalty area, he has scored only 22 times, amassing a measly 10.35 expected goals (xG). As for those born from inside the 18-yard box, he has hit the back of the net 27 times at an xG of 29.2 and from the 6-yard box, scored seven times with an xG value of 7.91.
Coutinho has failed to grow as a footballer at Barcelona. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty)
Quite clearly, taking shots at goal from areas near the goal, preferably within the penalty box provides a higher chance at scoring, however, Coutinho tends to prioritise shooting techniques that not only have a staggeringly low return but which also have an even lower probability of going into the back of the net in the first place.
Those are his scoring stats but what about his creation of chances? After all, summing up his assists from the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga will surely give us a better image of how creative he is right? Wrong.
Assists are by no means the best metric one can use when determining how creative one is because one’s ineptitude in finishing may give the impression that a midfielder is inherently weak in his creation of chances when in reality their excellent chances are being put to waste. Fortunately, we have Expected Assists (xA) to measure that for us.
From outside the box, Coutinho has made 95 key passes (KP) and provided 6 assists with an xA of 3.14. In the penalty area, he has made 195 KP and assisted 27 times with an xA value of 28.54 and finally from the 6-yard area, he has made 16 and got three assists with an xA value of 3.27.
Based on his scoring as well as chance creation, it’s clear his sweet spot is just inside the penalty area where he’s most consistent at generating quality chances for both himself and others.
One of his major problems from a statistical point of view is that he disproportionately chooses points to attack which are far from beneficial to him over the long term.
How do his stats fair in the current campaign? He has scored three goals at an xG of 3.62, however, he has provided two assists at an xA of just 0.57. why is his xA so low? His frequency at providing key passes is shallow, and his probability of assisting even lower. In eight games he has provided just six key access, and even though he had a seemingly bright start to things this year, his individual Key pass to assist ratio was anything but stainable.
It does not take much to know that the use of a footballer in their preferred zones in the pitch will result in an overall better output, be it in offence or defence. In the same light, to understand why Coutinho has been performing so poorly of late, questioning the manager‘s, as well as the squad’s role, is important in this.
The present-day Barcelona side has an abundance of attacking talent. One need only look at the names of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé to get a picture of just how potent the Catalans’ front line is — or can be.
Man management plays an enormous role in how a player fits into a system or not. In 2018-19, despite scoring 5 goals and providing two assists, the Brazilian endured arguably the worst season of his career. Why so? He, simply put, is a footballer whose profile does not fit in with the Barca style of play or the formation that predominantly comes with it.
Coutinho also plays in the ’10’ role, and unfortunately for him, he finds himself in the club that has possibly the only two players who perform that role better than him. In 2018-19, because he could barely fit into the midfield as an interior, Ernesto Valverde cast him out to the wings, and such was the gravity of this failure that he had himself sent away to Bayern Munich.
The problems Coutinho faces at Barcelona are more than a product of his own poor decisions. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty)
Now back in the iconic Claret and Blue of Barcelona, the same tactical failure that Coutinho was victim to is showing its ugly face once more. In the past five games in succession, Coutinho has had himself contribute to just one goal. Not only is his output in front of goal decreasing, but his performances have also taken a nosedive too.
It is easy to understand why Ronald Koeman would even fathom attempting to utilise the Brazilian in a way in which he knows is far from productive, even though he started in his preferred attacking midfield capacity when the season kicked off. It comes down to a clash of personnel in the same zone, with Griezmann, Messi, Coutinho, and Pedri all preferring to play in that position.
But the impact of playing out of position if most apparent with Coutinho, who, in his last five outings, Coutinho has amassed 2.5xG — 1.9 of which came in the same match. But given the fact that he has not even come close to providing a single assist, with his xA in that period at a staggeringly low 0.12, something about how the manager is using him has to change. This does boil down to poor decision making to a large extent.
This, of course, is easier said than done as while he is going on a rough patch, Griezmann is having the time of his life in his attacking midfield role, and depriving him of it now that he finally found his feet does not, by any stretch of the imagination, seem fair to the Frenchman.
Therefore, is Coutinho’s inconsistent past coming back to haunt him? We here at Barça Universal think so. The problems are multifaceted and the solutions scarce. And if it continues on the same road, it is difficult to imagine his future in the Catalan capital.
On the one hand, Coutinho’s individual flaws will never cease to hurt him, as his neverending pursuit for his trademark scorchers will continue to harm him unless he adopts methods of playing that maximise efficiency. This is blatantly clear in his shots to goals as well as his key pass to assist ratios. In addition to his poorly picked chance creation zones, he fails to provide key passes at rates that could increase his chances at getting an assist, and until that is sorted out, then he might be on for one rocky road.
On the other hand, systemic issues, which he has next to no control over, will also harm him unless the manager finds a solution to his problems. Playing the Brazilian out in the left flank clearly disrupts his rhythm and efficiency on the ball, but given the form of his two competitors in the central attacking midfield as well as Ousmane Dembélé’s injury, will this end? Only time will tell.
Stats from Understat.
The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers
“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”
At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.
He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.
Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.
It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.
There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.
Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.
The prototype of a Barcelona number nine
Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.
To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.
Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.
Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.
La Masia strikers and their progression
Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.
Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.
But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?
Possible problems and solutions
Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.
In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.
This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.
Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.
As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.
Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.
Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.
Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.
One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.
This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.
We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.
They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.
“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”
Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.
“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”
“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”
“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”
“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.
I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”
“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”
“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”
“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”