As he watched from the Camp Nou director’s box on Thursday night, Philippe Coutinho probably asked himself what he could offer this Barcelona team that they don’t already have. Composed and intricate in possession, fast and furious in attack, the Catalans scored four times before half time to blow away Celta Vigo and reach the Copa del Rey quarter finals. How much better could they possibly get?
The same question was asked when Neymar signed for the Catalans, yet the Brazilian took Barca to new heights. Coutinho is expected to do similar, bringing the Camp Nou club into a new era – an era which, whisper it, will see Barcelona plan for a future without Lionel Messi. Coutinho’s signing is the first sign that thoughts have turned towards a time when the Argentine finally fades as a force.
In the immediate term, though, there is a discussion over the playmaker’s place in this Barca side. Keep in mind that £135.5 million was splurged on the signing of Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund in the summer. Keep in mind that, even in this late stage of his career, Andres Iniesta is still a key figure. And keep in mind the 4-4-2 formation that Ernesto Valverde has used to great effect this season. It’s not clear to see where Coutinho will fit in.
Ultimately, Valverde’s selection headache could boil down to a duel between Coutinho and Dembele. There is only a place for one of the two players. But what makes that duel all the more compelling is the philosophy that each player represents. They are completely different and with one in the side over the other, Barcelona would likely play a completely different game.
Dembele has already shown his worth, despite suffering a serious injury in his first start which kept him out of action for four months. The young Frenchman performs the Neymar role in the way he stretches the pitch, albeit on the opposite flank, creating space for the likes of Messi and Luis Suarez in the centre. His importance is tactical as much as it is technical.
Coutinho sits at the other side of the spectrum. He is a central operator, even if he drifts wide from time to time. His selection over Dembele will see Barcelona play, predominantly, through the middle, with Jordi Alba their only wide outlet. Sure, the Brazilian might have the individual quality to pick a way through a packed opposition defence, but tactically, he is less of a natural fit.
There are parallels to be drawn between this potential selection dilemma Valverde faces and one Zinedine Zidane faced last season, when Gareth Bale and Isco were vying for the same spot in the Real Madrid team. Bale, like Dembele, was seen as someone to get in behind, give Real some speed in the final third. Isco, like Coutinho, was a more technical playmaker.
This conundrum didn’t hinder Real Madrid, though. In fact, it gave them a versatility that took them to a league and Champions League double. And this is where the real benefit of Coutinho and Dembele’s double signing could be for Barcelona. For years, they have lacked a Plan B, an alternative game plan. Now, they have a different way of playing. Valverde can change things up.
Of course, Coutinho will be sidelined for a further three weeks with a thigh injury, with Dembele only just recovering from injury himself. Eventually, Valverde’s plan for the pair will become apparent, but he doesn’t have to choose one over the other. Zidane never did with Bale and Isco, playing one off the other to great success. Coutinho and Dembele might not fit into the same team, but that might actually work out to be a good thing.
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