The Conundrum of Coutinho

What to make of Philippe Coutinho? He arrived in January 2018 for a gigantic fee — somewhere between 120 and 160 million euros — and he has, in his one full season, made 62 appearances and scored 19 goals in call competitions. He was cup tied last season in the Champions League and made 0 appearances, including avoiding being part of the debacle in Rome, but this season, he has been front-and-center. This has, invariably, led to criticism when he under-performs, but is it fair?

For starters, there is the question of expectation.

Ostensibly purchased as the replacement for Neymar, although originally slated as a midfield compliment to him before PSG’s summer 2017 swoop, Coutinho has not lived up to the goal-scoring abilities of his Brazilian compatriot. Yet, Coutinho has never been a goalscorer like Neymar. Over the course of Neymar’s career, he has scored almost 0.63 goals per match, whereas Coutinho’s career has served up almost 0.24 goals per match. It is a little bit absurd to assume that Coutinho would suddenly step in and up his game so dramatically.

And yet, he has increased his goalscoring output, going from 0.26 goals per match at Liverpool to 0.30 goals per match at Barça. If he plays 201 matches for Barça (the same number as at Liverpool in call competitions) and scores at his current rate, his goal return would be 61. This is more goals than Ivan Rakitic (who has 35 in 255 matches) or Andres Iniesta (57 goals in 674 matches). Xavi had 85 in 767 matches. A more contemporary comparison is Ousmane Dembele’s 18 in 58 (0.31 goals per match). That rate would put him at 19 goals in 62 matches, which you may recognize as the exact same number as Coutinho.

So, if he wasn’t purchased for his goals, was he purchased for his buildup play? According to Squawka’s player comparison matrix, in La Liga Coutinho has managed just one second assist and 2 assists from open play. So what, exactly, is Coutinho doing?

Looking at the latest Champions League match against Lyon, a 5-1 drubbing in which 3 of the goals were scored after Coutinho left the field in favor of Dembele, but in which Coutinho scored and struggled defensively at times, it was a microcosm of everything that is good and bad about him.

Just after Lyon scored what turned out to be their only goal of the night, Coutinho played a defensive series on the left wing, tracking mostly Leo Dubois and handing him off to Jordi Alba when necessary. At one point he lets Dubois go after Messi loses uncharacteristically loses the ball in midfield, but that leaves Lenglet and Alba with 3 players to deal with and Coutinho standing along above the box, 40 yards from goal. It’s a mistake that could easily have cost a goal, simply through lack of effort both physical and communicative. Fekir took a shot that went just over and nothing came of it, but it looked like a warning sign at the time.

When Barça won the ball back, Coutinho moved forward again, this time moving into the space Luis Suarez created by dropping back towards midfield. The ball worked its way eventually to Alba, who saw that Coutinho had intelligently meandered around the front, creating a few yards of space between the Lyon back line and the midfield. Tousart, having been pulled out of position by Suarez, is a step or two out of the play and Jason Denayer had dropped a few steps in case Dubois couldn’t contain Alba on the wing. Alba held the ball up instead of darting down the line in a foot race and fed Coutinho, who is one-on-one with a defender who was flat-footed. It is here that everything broke apart: Coutinho pushed the ball ahead of himself, clearly looking to exploit his opponent’s position, but he pushes the ball just too far and it looks like Denayer will get a touch in. Coutinho is there first, though, but he’s lost some of his advantage already. He then tries a step over, steps on the ball, and it squirts out behind him to be cleaned up by a recovering Tousart.

It feels like he has done everything right except the crucial part where the object of the game is to control the spherical thing being kicked around. It feels like he has mastered space and understands where his opponents and teammates will be in the next few seconds so that he can be proactive rather than reactive. And he has goofed it. And he has let them off the hook. And then he jogs back towards the halfway line, tracking a slow-motion run by Fekir. Lyon loses the ball and Coutinho appears to sigh, as if to say “oh great now I have to run back up front. Great.” From there until his substitution, he seemed less interested. It had been an okay match from him, including a goal, but he made some mistakes, including not letting a ball run to Sergi Roberto when he (Coutinho) was clearly offside. He made a horrendous defensive read 30 minutes into the first half, getting faked out by a simple look from Tanguy Ndombele who was some 20 yards away. Tousart broke into midfield with acres of space and then sprayed a pass to Alba that should have at least resulted in a chance for Lyon. Instead, 2 minutes later, Coutinho is on the end of a brilliant move by Arthur and Suarez and he taps in the team’s 2nd goal. It was a mixed bag.

It feels increasingly like a mixed bag is exactly what we’ll get from Coutinho. And it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s entirely his fault. He is good with space, but space is at an extreme premium when you play for Barça and while he can clearly manufacture his own space, he’s either not capable of or not confident enough to take advantage of that space. He seems built to operate in a system that simply doesn’t exist around him. His goalscoring in this season is far below what he accomplished last year, when he was the third highest goalscorer on the team with 11 in half a season. It’s now Dembele who has taken over that mantle behind Suarez and Messi and Coutinho has just 9 goals in nearly twice as many matches as last season.

There is almost a cloud hanging over him thanks to his transfer fee and that cloud will not really be removed until he proves his worth in a way that he simply never will: with goals. He was seemingly a though-out-panic-buy, which makes no sense, but is increasingly the only explanation. We replaced Neymar with Dembele, after all, and the young Frenchman is looking more and more like he’ll feature regularly and with enough goals to facilitate the continued use of Messi and Suarez in trident-like front line. Coutinho, then, is almost surplus to requirements given that his role of “attacking midfielder” is almost non-existent at Barça.

Watching Arthur cut through the Lyon defense with the pass that Suarez turned into an assist for Coutinho showed the world that we don’t really need Coutinho for the midfield, especially not with Frenkie de Jong coming in, Aleñá working his way towards more minutes, and Vidal and Rakitic holding down that box-to-box role. The only thing left to do is bolster Coutinho’s numbers and appearances in order to sell him in the summer. He’s a good player and there are a variety of teams that would benefit from his skills, including his long-range shooting, which he hasn’t employed at Barça because space is simply not afforded anyone for such shots. That’s suicide with the net-seaking leg-cannons on Messi, Suarez, and Coutinho, so teams opt instead to make Barça work their way through them. This is not at all Coutinho’s forte and that is showing more and more as teams increasingly figure out that they can press him quickly and he’ll either cough up the ball or send it backwards to let them reset. In this La Liga season, according to Squawka, Coutinho has dribbled opponents 32 times. This is not necessarily a problem, but he has lost the ball in dribble attempts 33 times. A 50% chance that he loses the ball when taking on an opponent is hardly elite-level playing.

It is time we face this reality: Coutinho was a bad purchase. Cutting our losses is the best way forward unless we would like to re-orient our entire team around the giant question mark that is his current career status. This seems unintelligent and precisely what recent purchases by the team suggest is not going to happen. So, we must accept that we will lose money on this deal, get him to go somewhere else, and move on from this bad deal. He remains a good player and I hope that he ends up playing at a high level for someone else. Unless that someone else is a team I don’t like.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.