Philippe Coutinho will never have a better chance to prove he’s world-class than this season
Two superb Philippe Coutinho performances helped Brazil start their World Cup qualification matches in perfect form.
A 5-0 demolition of Bolivia was followed up by an impressive 4-2 win away against Peru, with Coutinho running the show from the centre of midfield backed up by Casemiro and Douglas Luiz.
Coutinho was so good that compatriot and former Liverpool teammate Roberto Firmino said: “He has magical powers. He produces plays that don’t exist, that you couldn’t make up.
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“You always have to watch replays of his plays to understand what he’s done. He’s an unbelievable player. It was a pleasure to play with him at Liverpool, and it’s a pleasure to play with him for the Selecao.”
And, as if it wasn’t obvious, Firmino concluded with: “I’m a huge fan of his. He’s one of the very best players in the world.”
But that is the interesting part, because is Coutinho one of the very best players in the world? Back in 2018 you’d have probably agreed, fresh from a mid-season move from Liverpool to Barcelona, the Brazilian was a phenomenally effective force, helping the Blaugrana win La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
Two years later, however, things look a little different. He struggled in his first full season with Barcelona for reasons that are still unclear. A loan move to Bayern Munich appeared to be working out nicely but even that turned to ashes as he was reduced to being a second-half super-sub. He helped win the Treble, but only a little bit (even if smacking two goals and an assist to inflict a historic 8-2 defeat on Barcelona must have felt somewhat satisfying on a personal level).
Now he’s back at Barcelona, which some could see as a failure to draw a big money transfer to another elite side that would build around him. However, it actually presents Coutinho with an incredible chance to be exactly the player Firmino thinks he is.
See, Coutinho is a no. 10. He can’t really play anywhere else on the pitch and shine to his brightest. So he’s a no. 10, but most teams don’t play with a no. 10 anymore and those that do tend to have the role filled already (Messi at Barcelona, Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich, Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United, Paulo Dybala at Juventus).
That is part of why he has always struggled at Barcelona. Although he naturally plays from the left, ultimately he wants to occupy a lot of the spaces that Messi does, which means he has to be subservient, which he doesn’t really know how to do well.
At least that’s how it usually goes. See this summer Barcelona sold Luis Suárez, their star striker, and failed to replace him. Moves for Lautaro Martinez and Memphis Depay broke down, so new coach Ronald Koeman’s solution was to use Messi as a striker.
By placing his best player as close to goal as possible, this would hopefully allow Messi to influence games as best as possible without having to worry about his defensive responsibilities. It’s sound logic; it also opens up a vacancy at no. 10 in Koeman’s preferred 4-2-3-1 shape.
And that vacancy is where Coutinho fits in. He gets to play in his preferred role for Barcelona, and with Messi tasked to be the team’s main scorer rather than its playmaker and scorer (as has been the case since Neymar left in 2017) they shouldn’t tread on each other’s toes so much. There may still be some overlap, but Messi’s brief is now so much more forward-thinking that he and Coutinho should be able to co-exist (as they have done so nicely in the early games of the season).
Essentially: it’s Coutinho’s time to shine! Playing no. 10 with Messi as his striker and backed-up with an impressive midfield and flanked by fast, quick wingers like Ansu Fati and Trincao or the supremely talented and defensively rigorous Antoine Griezmann. Coached by a man like Ronald Koeman who clearly believes in him a great deal and wants him to excel. It’s all there for the Brazilian!
But it won’t always be.
Barcelona will sign a striker in the summer, and with a new board in place Messi will probably renew his contract as well. All this is to say, the brief window Coutinho has will soon close and he’ll be shut out of the XI or pushed out wide where he struggles.
Right now, though? Right now it’s all there for him. Coutinho will never get a better chance at an elite club to prove that he really is world-class. That he really is one of the best players on the planet. This is his chance, he just has to take it.