Despite entering the season as arguably Barcelona’s second best player, Philippe Coutinho is now struggling to even get a place in Ernesto Valverde’s best starting eleven. In each of the last three league matches, the Brazilian attacking midfielder has been forced to settle for an appearance off the bench. Coutinho may be capable of playing in midfield and as a forward, but he is currently struggling to command a place in either position.
In attack, Barcelona’s preferred front three right now is Messi, Suarez, and Dembele. Messi’s position is obviously taken, but the other two certainly looked open for Coutinho at the start of the season. Suarez may play a very different role to Coutinho, but using Messi through the middle with Coutinho on the left seemed a possibility given Suarez’s age and struggles at times last season. However, Suarez has played very well this season, and the limited attempts to play Messi at false 9 failed to get the most out of the player and team. Despite his inconsistent finishing and first touch, Barcelona still look a better team with Suarez leading the line.
While Coutinho would have been a certainty to fill the spot alongside Messi and Suarez a few months ago, Dembele’s recent form has placed him above Coutinho for that position. Not only has the French youngster scored plenty of crucial goals this campaign, but his pace and directness also brings something different to the attack. Furthermore, Coutinho has disappointed in his recent substitute appearances off the wing with his lack of pace particularly standing out given the space available as the match winds down.
Given the competition for places in the attack, Coutinho’s inability to cement a place in midfield is probably the more disappointing and rectifiable situation. At the moment, there are potentially four midfielders ahead of him with Arthur appearing to be the first substitute for the starting trio of Vidal, Busquets, and Rakitic. The current system also makes it more difficult for Coutinho because the player in his preferred left central midfield role often plays a deeper role alongside Busquets, while the third midfielder drifts wide and cover for Messi’s free role.
While he probably would not make the starting eleven for a must win match next week, there will still be plenty of opportunity for Coutinho to force his way into the team by the end of the season. All of Barcelona’s key midfielders and attackers are fit and in form right now, but that is bound to change at some point. Furthermore, the return of the Champions League will require rotations and give those like him more chances to force their way into the team.