Three days after being hauled off at halftime after a nonexistence performance against Real Madrid, Philippe Coutinho gave a glimpse of why Barcelona decided to pay £142million for his services in January.
The Brazilian opened the scoring and put in one of his best performances of the season against Villarreal, en route to a 5-1 win. It’s easy to point to the difference in quality between the opposition, but Villarreal are in 6th place and have won their only matchup with Real Madrid this season. Moreover, on Wednesday’s encounter, Coutinho faced off against one of the best right backs in Europe, Mario Gaspar, and still managed to impress.
Perhaps the main difference between the two performances was not in the quality of the opposition or the weight of the occasion: Coutinho has delivered time and time again in heavyweight Premier League clashes that boast the same vigor and importance of El Clásico. Perhaps the difference is in his position: while he started on the right wing against Real Madrid, he operated as a left winger against Villarreal.
Coutinho’s best position has always been a puzzle that nobody has quite yet solved. The Rio De Janeiro native rose to fame under Brendan Rodgers’ title-chasing diamond 4-4-2 as a left-sided interior. Under Jürgen Klopp, he operated as a left winger, cutting in from the wing and dazzling the Kop with pinpoint long shots. This season, he often found himself as a left-sided central midfielder, supplying the high-flying triumvirate of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Since arriving at Barcelona in January, Ernesto Valverde has fielded him in a variety of positions, including on the right. Taking note of Tite’s success in playing him on the right wing next to Gabriel Jesus and Neymar Jr., Valverde has started Coutinho on the right in several high-stakes matches, from El Clásico to the Copa Del Rey Final. While the Brazilian has impressed on the right, keeping him on the right instead of his more natural, left-sided position would not only be a waste of his abilities, but a waste of the £142million shelled out for him as well.
Against Madrid, Coutinho was isolated and hesitant to use his preferred left foot. Against Villarreal, Coutinho proved just why he is viewed as both the long-term and short-term replacement to Andrés Iniesta, who, like him, experimented at left wing, despite playing the majority of his prime as a left-sided midfielder.
It was clear from the start how comfortable he was on the other side of the pitch. Midway through the seventh minute, he attempts to run through the channel between Álvaro and Gaspar, but seeing as though Samu Castillejo blocked Lucas Digne’s passing lane, he retreats for the short pass option. At first, it seems he’s about to play a one-two with Digne, but instead, he swivels past two Submarino Amarillo players, just another glimpse of the Brazilian’s nonchalant press-resistance.
At the tenth minute, just as Ousmane Dembélé is blazing past several naive yellow shirts, Coutinho realizes there’s the opportunity for a through ball or a shot. He changes tempo at the edge of the 18-yard-box, turning his light jog into a full-fledged sprint, and hammers home the rebound for Ousmane’s deflected shot.
At the sixteenth minute, he notices Rodri Hernandez shuttling over to press him just as he is about to receive the ball. The Brazilian quickly side-steps him and squares it to Iniesta, who threads the needle for Digne, who squares it for Paulinho, who scores the second.
Between his performance on Sunday and his performance on Wednesday, it was night and day. While it may be tempting to experiment, between Ousmane Dembélé and a lesser known Argentine bloke, Barcelona aren’t exactly desperate for options on the right-hand side. Instead, they must focus on shoe-horning Coutinho in Iniesta’s role–the left-sided playmaker. It will take patience, it will take time, and it will take an outright position change, but as the Catalans prepare for a summer move for Antoine Griezmann and a summer exit of Andrés Iniesta, there is nobody better to link midfield and attack, and usher in the new era at Barça, than Philippe Coutinho.
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