What is holding Philippe Coutinho back from being his best?


By guest contributor Soham Banerjee (@IamSohamB). 

A highly talented player who suited the ambitions of FC Barcelona joined the club more than a year ago for an unfathomable fee of over 150 million euros. He was seen as the rightful heir to club legend Andres Iniesta and added a lot to the team initially with his zeal for unmatched creative abilities. He had the flair of a classic Brazilian attacker, running across the pitch making spirals and winding his opponents up in a web of skillful moves on the ball. Additionally, he was seen as the back-up free kick taker, with profound accuracy and shooting skills. His ability to score long shots consistently made him a danger whenever he lurked across the 18-yard box. From Milan to Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho was known for his versatility, making him a variety player with his ability to play both as an attacking midfielder or a winger. His ability to play in both positions perhaps cost him a spot in Barcelona's Starting XI. Since his injury, which took him out of action for almost a month in the fall, things have spiraled downward for the 26-year-old. What happened to Barcelona most expensive signing ever?

The first problem that needs to be address is where he's been playing. Throughout the season, we have seen Coutinho play as a left winger, often failing to retain or even pass the ball. The requirements for playing in that position seems to not fit what the Brazilian is capable of. As Suárez continues to age, there is a dire need of a player to break the line and burst forward with pace to test the opposition's defense. Nowadays, Messi patrols a somewhat attacking midfield position; the requirement to speed across the field and be that line breaker is being fulfilled by Ousmane Dembélé. Coutinho isn't the fastest player and so the occasional South American trio of Messi, Suárez and Coutinho can look lethargic. The lack of conviction in attack has more often than not put the onus on Messi to save Barcelona from laying an offensive egg.

The second problem is the change in formation that has taken a huge toll on Coutinho's role. Throughout much of last season, we had seen Ernesto Valverde lining up with a 4-4-2 formation where the Brazilian played as a central midfielder and as a left midfielder. These positions were where he flourished on arrival and appeared to be on track to maximum the potential that he reached with Liverpool. Throughout the spring, Coutinho made inch-perfect passes from the advanced midfield role and scored mind-blowing long-range missiles that made fans wonder what could have been if he was available that one night in Rome. This season he isn't finding enough space to think and create while playing as a left-winger in a 4-3-3 formation.

The third problem is the increase in competition for at his positions. Unlike Coutinho, Dembélé flourished in Valverde's 4-3-3 system as he replaced the former's ability on the ball with the latter's ability to create and score with both feet and run at an astounding pace. In the midfield, the role of playing as a controlling influence, something Coutinho should never be tasked with, was taken over by countryman Arthur, who taken the world by storm since arriving over the summer. In a club like Barcelona it is expected that the competition between the players will be high and performing at your best is more of a pre-requisite than a process. Failing to do so will surely lead to a player being relegated to the bench. Whether due to injuries in his squad or just purposeful rotation, Valverde has utilized Coutinho as the starter four times in February and brought him off the bench on four occasions (counting the latest March Clásico).

The final problem and surely the most important is the lack of support and confidence. Barcelona fans are some of the most difficult to please in the world and a string of even two or three games without success is seen as an utter failure. Sometimes, it can galvanize players in the way that Dembélé seemed to use social media to silence his detractors. For others, with Yerry Mina, André Gomes, Paco Alcácer and Denis Suárez all being recent examples, these struggles can sap a player's confidence. Each of these players performed better with their new clubs almost immediately and they justifiably received praise and adoration from their new fan bases. It's to the benefit of Culés to support Coutinho throughout the last stretch of the season, but there will be major questions come the offseason if his future remains in Catalonia.