Philippe Coutinho is back in the Premier League on loan with Aston Villa.
The Brazilian midfielder has endured a terrible time of things for Barcelona after a promising debut half-season. Coutinho joined the Blaugrana in January 2018 and, after helping them win La Liga and the Copa del Rey that season, fell off spectacularly.
All those things you associated with Coutinho, dynamism, dribbling, goals? All gone. It’s been a bizarre fall from grace for such a talented player that he actually went on loan to Bayern Munich and was a super-sub as they won the treble in 2019/20, and no one remembers.
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Since the start of 2018/19, Coutinho has played 3,177 minutes for Barcelona yet has managed a measly (especially for a £100m+ player) nine goals and four assists. His 0.25 goals per-90 minutes ranks lower than Martin Braithwaite (0.25) or even injury-prone Ousmane Dembélé (0.33).
Ever since the summer, Barcelona have been trying to get rid of him. Both because they want to see him thrive elsewhere but also because his sizeable salary is costing the club money it doesn’t have and, by letting him go, La Liga’s financial fair play laws mean a lot of money would be freed up for the Blaugrana to register new signings like Ferran Torres.
It didn’t look like there were going to be any bidders. However in his classic style, Steven Gerrard has arrived out of nowhere to save the day. Aston Villa have negotiated a loan deal to take Coutinho to the Premier League, a player Gerrard described on Thursday as, “a world-class individual player […] I don’t think you get a nickname as a magician if you’re not a special footballer.”
So what happens next? The no.10 shirt is already taken, but he could don Villa’s No.9, if he wanted to, or continue with the No.14 he presently wears with Barcelona.
And more importantly, where will he play? Obviously the prospect of Coutinho linking up with his former teammate is tantalising, but Gerrard won’t literally be on the field with the Brazilian if the move goes ahead. So who will play alongside him? We’ve had a look at some possible formations and line-ups for the Villa attack.
1. The Captain Jack
Aston Villa’s goalkeeper and back four are pretty much set in stone, barring injury, so the real changes come in midfield and attack. The most obvious role for Coutinho in the Villa side is on the left-flank, playing the Jack Grealish role.
While he was ill-suited to be a winger at Barcelona, playing for Villa where all the play could run through him peeling in off the left, with Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba backing him up, John McGinn running beyond him and the lethal Danny Ings leading the line ahead of him, this kind of “Grealish role” could suit Coutinho.
Of course, Coutinho is not exactly the same player as Grealish. Comparing his last full season for Barcelona in 2018/19 with Grealish’s final season for Villa, you can see the similarities but the differences are also clear, with Coutinho shooting and scoring more while Grealish is much more creative (and a more intense presser).
However you have to consider here that Coutinho was playing with Leo Messi, so he was never going to be the chief playmaker as Grealish was at Villa. With no Messi in the Midlands (sorry, Villa fans) 0ne can reasonably expect Coutinho to become more involved in creating chances, even though his shoot-first approach will always be his signature style.
2. The One to Eleven
One of the coolest things about Aston Villa’s midfield and defence is that they can line-up perfectly with numbers 1-8. Then Emi Buendia wears No.10 and Ollie Watkins has the no. 11. The No.9 is free, but if Coutinho takes it then Villa can roll back the years and put out a functional and fearsome team perfectly numbers 1-11.
The changes are slight, so here Douglas Luiz anchors midfield, which brings Morgan Sanson into the side. The Frenchman would add a more expansive touch to the Villa midfield, and this would perhaps require a bit more discipline from Coutinho in terms of where he roams as the midfield is less defensively sound.
However Ollie Watkins’ pace and movement means this system would see Coutinho really get his passing game on, finding the young forward’s runs in behind with those tracer through balls of his.
3. The Klopp
In that last half-season on Merseyside, Coutinho began playing in midfield (and the tail-end of the previous campaign).
That was supposed to signal his transition to that role at Barcelona, but Ernesto Valverde decided to give up on that change, effectively killing Coutinho’s career in Catalunya just a few weeks into 2018/19 as it meant he didn’t have a true place in the XI.
Well, Steven Gerrard could continue the good work begun by Jurgen Klopp by pulling Coutinho back into midfield. This is a very attacking formation and obviously puts a lot of pressure on Douglas Luiz and John McGinn to provide cover, but with defensive wingers it can work. And in Emi Buendia and Jacob Ramsey, Villa have the kind of hard-working wingers to make this work.
The 4-3-3 may end up looking like a 4-4-1-1 out of possession but the aim would be to have Coutinho in central areas, letting the game run through him. This probably wouldn’t work at first but if Gerrard can rehabilitate Coutinho with one of the first two systems, evolving gradually to this option might see the Brazilian really find his best level in England once again.
Sure, against the elite sides this probably wouldn’t work. But when Villa are facing teams they want to dominate and beat, having Coutinho pushing the tempo from midfield could be a great way to do just that.
4. The All-Out Attack
Sometimes you just need to throw everything at an opponent. In that instance, Villa have the option to play 4-2-3-1, with Coutinho enshrined as a No.10 with little defensive responsibility in terms of tracking back, but a responsibility to push forward and press.
Danny Ings would lead the line while Ollie Watkins plays a wide role that sees him streak in off the flank to offer a goal threat. John McGinn and Douglas Luiz would anchor midfield but with the chance for McGinn to break forward. Buendia would offer dribbling and creativity on the right, helping defensively as well.