Barcelona & Philippe Coutinho: What's gone wrong for the Brazilian in Spain?

Philippe Coutinho sits alongside Thomas Vermaelen on the Barcelona bench
Coutinho has "hit rock bottom" at Barca according to Spanish newspaper Marca

He joined the club for £142m just over 12 months ago, but could Philippe Coutinho's time at Barcelona already be drawing to a close?

The Brazilian has been linked with a return to the Premier League recently, with Manchester United rumoured to be interested in bringing the former Liverpool player to Old Trafford.

Last week, Spanish newspaper Marca criticised the 26-year-old's recent performances, saying Coutinho has "hit rock bottom" at the Nou Camp.

So has the 26-year-old really failed to live up to expectations in Spain?

Fading influence

Signed as a long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta, who joined Japanese side Vissel Kobe at the end of last season, Coutinho played a key role in helping Barca win the domestic double in his first half-season at the club.

He opened his goalscoring account in a 2-0 victory over Valencia in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg in February and finished the campaign strongly, scoring 10 goals and making six assists in his last 16 appearances of 2017-18.

He scored one and set up another in Barcelona's resounding 5-0 victory over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final - Barcelona's first trophy under Ernesto Valverde - before getting six goals in his final five league outings to help the club win La Liga by 14 points.

It has largely been a different story so far this season, however.

His last league goal for the club came in a 5-1 victory over Real Madrid at the end of October.

He did get his name on the scoresheet in Thursday's surprise Copa del Rey defeat by Levante, but team-mate Sergio Busquets admitted afterwards that Coutinho is lacking "confidence and rhythm". Assistant coach Jon Aspiazu also told reporters after the game that the Brazil international "is not perhaps at the same level as last year".

There were encouraging signs on Sunday, as he made a rare start in the 3-0 win over Eibar and provided the assist from which Luis Suarez opened the scoring.

Playing second fiddle to Dembele

Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele celebrate a goal for Barcelona in a La Liga match
Ousmane Dembele (centre) has impressed in recent weeks, while Coutinho (left) has started just one of Barca's past five league games

While Coutinho has undoubtedly failed to hit the heights of last season, he has endured his fair share of misfortune too.

After starting eight of Barca's first 11 league games, he suffered a hamstring injury in a Champions League match at Inter Milan in November, which kept him out of action for three weeks.

He has started just one league match since, with Ousmane Dembele often preferred to the Brazilian on the left-hand side of an attacking triumvirate that also includes Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.

Unfortunately for Coutinho, the young Frenchman is enjoying his most prolific spell since joining from Borussia Dortmund in August 2017, scoring four goals and setting up three in his past eight appearances in all competitions.

Aspiazu confirmed after the cup defeat by Levante that Coutinho has slipped down the pecking order at the Nou Camp, but did offer words of encouragement for the former Liverpool star.

"Dembele has moved a bit ahead [of Coutinho]," he said. "But he is a player we consider as a starter and he will be very important for us in the remainder of the season."

Not a natural stylistic fit - Analysis

Andy West, Spanish football writer

It's far too early to label Philippe Coutinho a flop at Barcelona or suggest he is surplus to requirements, but you can definitely say he has fallen short of expectations so far.

There have been some spectacular moments and promising performances, but the last few weeks in particular have seen the Brazilian desperately struggle to contribute on a consistent basis.

A major part of the problem is positional. The biggest discussion around Coutinho is whether he should be played as a winger (in Neymar's old position) or a midfielder (the role formerly filled by Iniesta), but he just doesn't look comfortable in either position.

He also doesn't appear to be a natural stylistic fit, choosing far too often to take extra touches and attempt to dribble past defenders, rather than keeping the ball moving with rapid passing in line with the team's preferred strategy.

Coutinho's task in claiming a regular starting place is complicated by the presence of another expensive signing, Dembele. Neither are strong defensively and, with Messi largely excused from playing in his own half, fielding Dembele and Coutinho together is a risk that conservative coach Valverde is reluctant to take.

And although Dembele has weaknesses - notably a tendency to lose possession cheaply - he is producing decisive moments far more regularly than Coutinho and has overtaken him in the pecking order.

Barca have a busy schedule coming up (including two-legged Copa del Rey ties every midweek this month, assuming they progress) so Valverde will give Coutinho chances to improve.

But if he doesn't take them, it's certainly not unthinkable that the club will attempt to offload him in the summer - especially if he can attract a big fee to help finance an expected move for Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong or a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.

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