After injuring his ankle against Leganes fifteen days ago, Ousamane Dembele returned to training today ahead of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey Clasico against Real Madrid. His absence gave Philippe Coutinho several chances on the left wing after the Brazilian had spent much of the previous two months on the bench. But despite Coutinho’s two goals against Sevilla in the Copa, he has likely not made enough of the opportunity to keep his place in the team upon Dembele’s return.
During Dembele’s two week absence, Coutinho had four opportunities to make an impression on Ernesto Valverde: both Copa del Rey legs against Sevilla, the match at Girona, and last Saturday’s clash with Valencia. In three of the four matches, Coutinho either had a limited impact or even a negative one. His cheap giveaway in midfield against Sevilla away led to their second goal, while his two missed breakaway chances against Girona could have proved costly on another day.
His performance against Valencia was even more disappointing. After appearing to gather some momentum with the goals midweek, he got another chance in the team three days later but had virtually no impact on the match. Given how little Valverde seems to rate Malcom, it was quite a damning indictment of Coutinho that he was subbed off for him when Barcelona was chasing the winner.
Coutinho’s string of disappointing displays on the wing have unsurprisingly sparked debate about whether he would do better in midfield. Given Dembele’s form before his injury, midfield is now probably the only place where Coutinho could play anyway. Valverde also entered the season using Coutinho as a midfielder but has not returned to the idea since the 2-1 loss at Leganes in September. Coutinho may offer a lot offensively in midfield, but the manager appears to have attributed some of Barcelona’s poor defensive form early on to him playing there. Especially given the limited defensive work from Messi and Suarez, having a #10 type player in midfield now seems out of the question in Valverde’s Barcelona.
For the rest of the season, it is looking more and more likely that Coutinho will not be in Barcelona’s best eleven with a fully fit squad. The only apparent exception to that would be if the manager opts for a 4231 in some matches, but that system has been largely ignored this campaign. Coutinho will still get plenty of chances when Valverde rotates the squad, but the third most expensive player ever will have to improve on his recent displays if he does not want to be watching Barcelona’s Champions League knockout matches from the bench.