The Philippe Coutinho dilemma: Winger or midfielder?
This tactical analysis on Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho originally featured on our network site, barcelonaanalysis.com
Ever since Philippe Coutinho first joined Barcelona in January, breaking the Catalan’s transfer record, he was dubbed to be the foundation of the club’s future – a necessary means to fill the huge void left by Andres Iniesta and easement of the inevitable retirement of the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi. Guided by Ernesto Valverde, the Brazilian has become a standard figure in the first XI, one of their most decisive players, and arguably the second biggest game-changer after the Argentinian wizard. However, the question of his preferred role in the club still remains partially unanswered, and as such, this tactical analysis will dive into statistics to provide a solution: Is Philippe Coutinho better suited for a midfield or a winger role or something in between?
During his spell at Anfield with Liverpool, Coutinho was predominately used in two different positions: As a left winger and as a central attacking midfielder. Both of those positions suited the Brazilian extremely well since he netted an impressive 54 goal tally with the Reds, 52 key passes and provided 45 assists to his name.
When he first joined Barcelona after the departure of Neymar, it was easy to presume that he would be filling his countryman’s shoes. To some extent, that is true but not entirely. So far this season, Coutinho has featured in all 10 of Barcelona’s matches, eight in La Liga and two in the Champions League, starting a total of seven of those 10 (five in the domestic league and both fixtures in CL). Still, he was not tied to a single position in those games but it rather varied according to the formation preferred by Ernesto Valverde. A more conservative approach with the deployment of the 4-4-2 formation would see Coutinho be positioned as a wide left midfielder.
If, however, the coach opted for the 4-3-3 solution, the Brazilian would either slot into the left wing with Ousmane Dembele sitting on the bench or would take up the number eight role as the left point of the midfield trident. The Frenchman would, in that case, occupy the left wing instead. This season, the 4-4-2 option was used 42 % of the time while 4-3-3 sits at 29 %. The rest (15 %) belongs to other, not so prominent, systems.
Coutinho is an attacker in the first place and as such, the position of left wing feels natural to him. His tendency to cut into the right and shoot with his stronger foot goes hand in hand with this system. It should come as no surprise that most of his goals have come from range while the player was occupying the left half space, dancing on the edge of the opposition’s box. So far this season he has scored three goals in all competitions – one in the Champions Leauge against Tottenham Hotspur, and two in La Liga, against Leganes and Deportivo Alaves respectively. In the game against Spurs, the Brazilian started and finished (mostly) on the left wing until he was subbed off in the 83rd minute for Rafinha. Although his positioning fluctuated between LW and LWF he was mostly (again) tied to that left half space from which the goal came.
Coutinho netted one goal and provided one assist in that game, along with 91 % passing accuracy, one successful dribbling, one key pass and two shots on target which is a decent return for an attacking minded player. Other games in which his position was either a clear LW or something similar, like LWF, included the one against Athletic Bilbao and Valencia.
It has to be noted that he is never strictly tied to a single position: As the formation changes during the game, so does his positioning. Still, only those three games were the ones during which he started as a left winger while during the rest he had to gradually transition to it from midfield. Taking that into account, Coutinho has one win and two draws to his name while playing as a left winger next to Suarez and Messi/ Dembele.
In those three games, his average score across platforms is around 7.3 – 7.5/10 with the highest one coming from the Spurs game (8.0) and lowest against Valencia (6.9). Although the left wing gives Coutinho the ideal situation in which he can cut inside to his right foot and position himself to be dangerous for the opposition, his lack of serious pace and muscle makes it difficult to thrive in those areas. His dribbling remains intact and not affected by it since he is still at a comfortable total of 14/18 (78 %), but his inability to win duels is significantly higher.
In those three games, it was apparent that defenders with some pace and/ or muscle can deal with him almost with ease. 31/72 (43 %) duels won is worrying, to say the least. It seems that the Brazilian is muscled off the ball more often than not which resulted in a clear dispossession seven times throughout those three games. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem as bad but those are just dispossessions. Mostly, Coutinho couldn’t even get to the ball to begin with, which is an even bigger problem. Aerial duels were not taken into consideration here since there are not enough to properly measure his statistics in that category (1/3 in three games).
Coutinho was primarily brought in to enhance the team’s creative aspect, in which the little Brazilian excels. The number of total actions as opposed to successful ones is still impressive. A total of 268 actions with 187 completed ones results in around 70 % success rate. One of the more prominent action-starting was evident in his performance against Bilbao. What he usually does (and did in that game) is drop slightly deeper to receive the pass from Busquets and then do his signature twist and turn to beat his guard and proceed upwards to the final third. A quick one-two with Suarez results in a clear 1v1 situation which ultimately fails to turn into a goal. Nonetheless, it is a clear sign of Coutinho’s ability to create chances out of seemingly nothing.
Another advantage of his tendency of cutting to the right is the evident complementation with Jordi Alba. When Coutinho leaves the wing, he also leaves an empty pocket of space for Alba to exploit and use for his own. This is why Alba was rejuvenated after Neymar’s departure and also why he is limited when deployed alongside Ousmane Dembele. Coutinho will, more likely than not, move into that left half space, and Alba will overlap as usual. The combinations between the two happen often and are usually effective. Against Valencia, when the Brazilian was playing as a LW, he has given a total of 13 passes to Alba while receiving 23 from the Spaniard. Dembele remained around 10 minutes on the pitch and managed only two passes to Alba while receiving seven. The difference is mostly this notable because of the lack of playing time by the French but also a result of Dembele’s tendency to occupy the whole wing, just like Neymar did before his move to Paris Saint-Germain.
This season saw Barcelona revert back to their favourite 4-3-3 formation but with hot and cold results. Ousmane Dembele was to be given a more prominent role than the one he had in his debut season, and Valverde simply had to find a way to incorporate both of his big signings into the starting 11. The result was Dembele on the left wing and Coutinho in Iniesta’s number eight role, in the midfield.
The Brazilian is no stranger to this, albeit his midfield roles at Liverpool were mostly positioned a bit higher up the pitch, mostly right behind the striker. It was more of a CAM or a number 10 position. Still, the biggest setback of him playing alongside Lionel Messi is the fact that the Argentine occupies that same space which means that there is no room for another player, not even for the one of such a calibre as Coutinho. Barcelona is still trying to figure it out but meanwhile, the players are relying on chemistry and guidance among themselves to solve those issues on the spot, if necessary.
Still, since the start of the season, Coutinho has started the game as a left central midfielder a total of seven out of 10 times but four times he transitioned to a role of a winger throughout the game. His average rating while playing as a midfielder is, funnily enough, the same as before: around 7.3/10 but with a larger sample of games. What is also notable is the fact that his best game for the Blaugrana shirt this season also came when he played as a LCM. That was the game against Huesca where he scored an 8.2/10. His worst performance was against Girona and Real Sociedad with the same rating of 7.0.
Against Huesca, Coutinho ended up without goals but with an assist to his name. Even goalless, he was brilliant and finding the net would have been the cherry on top. Still, aside from the assist, he had an astonishing game that highlighted his capabilities in that position. 88 passes with 91 % accuracy and three key passes with two big chances created (one resulted in a goal). What is probably more encouraging is that he won 59 % of all his duels (13/22) and completed a total of 95/119 (around 80 %) actions that he started which is the highest percentage this season so far.
When deployed in the number eight role Coutinho uses his creativity to make passes and moves no other Barca midfielder offers at the moment. Paired with Busquets and Ernesto Valverde’s preferred third choice, the Brazilian can be a great attacking outlet with two more defensive minded parts of the triangle. This was shown in numerous instances when Coutinho was at the centre of initiating an attack from midfield or running with the ball only to provide a crucial pass to finish the action. It took Barcelona only three men to get from their goal to the opponent’s backyard. Ter Stegen throws the ball to Coutinho who makes a darting run and finishes it with a line-breaking ball to find Lionel Messi. Although he only completed four (out of four) long balls that game, the impact was nonetheless there.
It is difficult to judge someone’s performance based on only one game but it is a crucial game. The whole play revolved around the Brazilian with most of the passes focusing on him and him being the only true outlet of creativity. Coutinho would deploy the most of those passes to the left and he directed the crucial ones forward, which seems to be Barcelona’s bane when it comes to midfielders.
What was also encouraging is the fact that Coutinho backtracked a lot and dropped deep to receive passes, make passing options or simply to defend, for which he was usually criticized by the coach and the analysts. Here, he, again, drops to his half to receive the pass then plays the ball to Jordi Alba and follows it with a run forward, pulling both Huesca’s players with himself, opening two passing options for the Spaniard – one backwards and one to the middle. Alba tries playing a quick one-two with Philippe, which ultimately fails but the Brazilian’s impact was there.
Although his overall ratings in the rest of the games he (primarily) played as a midfielder were lower, those were mostly due to the whole team being out of form. However, it has to be noted that in all of those games the percentage of completed actions were more or less higher than in the ones where he was primarily a left winger – 84 % (CM) vs. 69 % (LW). He also recorded 47 % duels won in midfield vs. 43 % won on the wing but with four games more under his belt as a midfielder.
This research can only give a basic framework and provide some stats but to track Coutinho and his performances based on position is a difficult task.
For starters, his movement is fluid and he switches positions based on the flow of the game, as opposed to being stationary and occupying the same space that was shown on the paper before that. Although the stats do favour the midfield role, his performances on the wing were almost equally good which was evident in the Spurs game. The truth is that Coutinho almost always operates in the left half space, regardless of his “official” position. One way or the other, he prefers the left as he can cut to the right, and leave Alba some free space on the wings so the two can combine. The biggest difference lies in the tactics and responsibility.
Being a midfielder requires a lot more defensive tasks but also gives him a lot of freedom to create chances rather than (only) finish them. It should also be noted that the sample of games where he played strictly as a winger this season is too little as opposed to the ones where he played in midfield.
Still, sometimes the whole team plays out of shape so it impacts the individual performance of the player or sometimes the player just has an off day. Considering that Barcelona has two young wingers mostly occupying the bench, and Coutinho being a great fit in midfield, it might be a win-win situation for everyone. On the other hand, that would mean that one of the usual midfielders or one of the younger ones waiting for a chance might not get it as often as they should. Valverde would also have to fix one of his most prominent problems: Squad rotation.
Incorporating a player of a superstar stature as Coutinho into the team might seem easy in theory but Barcelona still has to figure it out to the fullest. The bright side is that wherever he plays, chances are that he will make a good impact. The trick is to utilize him so that he shows all his strengths but hides most of the weaknesses. Is Valverde the right man to do that? That’s also a question that still needs answering.