When you are not thriving at one place, you try to rediscover yourself by moving to another. Even after winning a Bundesliga and Champions League double in 2020 when on loan at Bayern Munich, ironically scoring against Barcelona en route to the final of the latter, Philippe Coutinho only reverted to the stagnancy he had undergone in Spain that made him transfer to begin with. Aston Villa have given the Brazilian a chance to rekindle past form and in doing so, add a further dimension to Villa’s creativity, and perhaps also boost Coutinho’s sense of importance to his team.
Aston Villa have been and continue to be in a transition period. The start of last season saw talisman Jack Grealish be sold to Premier League champions Manchester City for a British record £100m fee, and Villa used acquired funds to bring in an array of attacking talent; Emiliano Buendia, Leon Bailey, and Danny Ings were signed for a combined total of £88m.
Villa chugged along with Bailey impressing in short bursts, yet being hampered by time on the sidelines due to injury. Buendia and Ings took time to adjust to new surroundings, but have come closer to finding their feet following Dean Smith’s exit, and the subsequent appointment of Steven Gerrard as manager. Gerrard enjoyed success in Scotland with Rangers, reclaiming the league title, all whilst going the entire campaign unbeaten, achieving a perfect home record, and conceding only 13 goals.
Since Gerrard arrived in the Midlands, Villa’s form proved to be a mixed bag, and that remained trending since Coutinho arrived, with four wins, two draws, and four defeats in his first 10 games. Coutinho, however, couldn’t personally have asked for a better start, coming off of the bench to seal a comeback from two goals down in a 2-2 draw against Manchester United.
Philippe Coutinho was in dire need of a fresh start. And that dire need could only be amplified by possible aims to play at this year’s World Cup in Qatar. Coutinho was previously a key feature of manager Tite’s plans, and has been recalled to the Brazil squad twice since his return to English football, featuring and scoring for the first time since 2020. He scored a penalty in a World Cup qualifier match as Brazil won 4-0 against Chile.
So Coutinho’s displays for Villa have not only helped the club, but have also boosted his own chances of featuring for the Brazilian National side. The move to bring Coutinho to Villa Park itself came about in part due to the relationship between Coutinho and Gerrard. He was initially signed by Liverpool from Internazionale for £8.5m in January 2013, and played with his new manager for two and-a-half seasons. Gerrard has since built up a positive idea of Coutinho and his talent.
Before the transfer was confirmed, Gerrard offered praise in abundance, citing how he can “understand why a lot of supporters up and down the country are speaking about him”, whilst leading South American football journalist Tim Vickery also revealed how Brazil head coach Tite said Coutinho “needs an arm around him all the time. So, Gerrard knows what Coutinho can do and knows how to get the best out of him. The kind of treatment he needs.”
And after a few games under his belt, Coutinho had much to say about Gerrard and the ambitions held at Villa. “He spoke about the club, the ambitions here, the fans, his ambitions and for sure it was what I wanted. I decided very quickly. I’m here now and I’m very happy at the moment.” It is just as much a matter of psychology as it is anything else regarding Philippe Coutinho, and Aston Villa have seemingly given him this helpful platform.
Aston Villa offer a different set of circumstances to the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. Villa are not challenging for domestic and European silverware, and in this sense, offer Coutinho an environment not as burdened by pressure to cement a starting XI place and win trophies.
You may argue Coutinho’s status at Villa exudes pressure to be the main man for a club who look to be on the rise, but this case of a bigger fish in a smaller pond may be what he needs. Villa are bringing in talent to help them progress in this new chapter. But Coutinho, with Gerrard’s arm around his shoulder, gave him what he needed to produce the goods on the pitch.
And the platform handed to Coutinho also proved suitable tactically. Although it has never been easy deciding where best to play Coutinho, be it out wide, or deeper in a three-man midfield, the system and shapes adopted by Villa since Gerrard’s arrival have brought out good results.
Philippe Coutinho was first deployed as one of two inside forwards in a 4-3-2-1, much like how Gerrard would set up his Rangers side. Both Coutinho and Buendia have room to tuck inside and receive the ball between the lines. From these positions, Coutinho can scan and quickly turn to avoid pressure and allow himself space to pick out a pass to a teammate making a run.
There would therefore be space out wide for the two full-backs to overlap, with whom the inside forwards could combine, and in Coutinho’s case, left-back Lucas Digne, who was also signed in January, but from Everton for £25m. Digne and right-back Matty Cash are both very attack minded, the latter of whom has scored in recent wins against Brighton & Hove Albion and Leeds United. When pushing forward, they allow Villa to form a 2-3-5 when attacking in the opposing sides half.
Attacking moves have led to Coutinho scoring 4 goals in his first 10 games for Villa, and these goals came largely from arriving inside the box, pulling away from defenders to allow space to receive a delivery and shoot at goal. Other goal contributions have come in the form of three assists, one of which was a through ball to set up Villa’s latest starlet, Jacob Ramsey. Ramsey scored 6 goals last season, also helping set a trend of late runners into the final-third from midfield.
Three consecutive wins, before two consecutive defeats, came following a slight tactical tweak. With Ings replacing Buendia in the starting XI, Villa switched to a 4-3-1-2, which meant Coutinho acted as a lone no.10 in behind two centre-forwards. Coutinho’s in-game role was largely the same, but he now had even more freedom to drift across midfield and attack. Coutinho was superb in Villa’s 4-0 thrashing of Southampton, completing all 14 of his passes in the final-third, and on more than one occasion fed runs made by Ollie Watkins.
However, the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal showed that issues can occur if the opposing midfield is robust and does not offer as much space to thread passes to runners ahead. Coutinho would in turn need to provide movement to draw markers out of space.
Villa then went on to lose a further two games, including an emphatic 0-4 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Though that did not fully dissipate the trend of mixed results. Villa’s last seven games, which oversaw two wins, three draws, and two defeats, one of which was an enthralling 3-2 encounter against eventual champions Manchester City, epitomised the phrase.
Villa finished the season sitting at 14th place on the league table, away from relegation, and Coutinho’s data since moving to Villa has been good. His numbers are an improvement on that recorded during the first half of the season when still at Barcelona, notably making more key passes per 90 minutes (1.69 to 0.28) and achieving higher expected assists per 90 minutes (0.22 to 0.05).
Philippe Coutinho’s form proved apt enough to convince Villa to keep Coutinho at the club via a permanent deal. It is arguable that sporting director Johan Lange and Chief Executive Christian Purslow look to complete a rebuild, and this move shows Coutinho fall into those plans.
Coutinho was signed for a reported £17m, which is a large drop from the £146m move to Barcelona four years ago, but would also be a hefty fee for a player who turned 30 in June. He would additionally be taking a pay cut. So is it a worthwhile move for all parties? Could Philippe Coutinho maintain this recent run of good form, or is it merely a purple patch? It’s perhaps important that Villa find the right balance within their set-up, finding a way to accommodate both Coutinho and Buendia. Though they may be too similar as players, with Bailey or Ings, depending on the shape, being a more complementary option for either.
It was unlikely he would be in Xavi’s plans. The Barcelona manager previously lauded Coutinho’s talent, but recently Barcelona’s choice of 4-3-3 deploys fast, direct wingers, and midfielders who make lots of runs off of the ball, neither matching Coutinho’s profile.
Villa’s ambitious transfer activity has continued into this summer, following the additions of Boubacar Kamara from Marseille, and Sevilla’s Diego Carlos.
But this summer has also seen a key departure. Michael Beale, whose tactical nous proved instrumental to Rangers reclaiming their status as Scotland’s best, travelled with Gerrard as his assistant manager, though has since departed Villa to begin his first managerial role at Championship side Queens Park Rangers. He has been replaced by Neil Critchley, who left his role as manager of Blackpool.
Nevertheless, Philippe Coutinho has found a place to relight the flame that once burned brightly. He featured in a side that finished the season in the bottom half of the league table. But there is still a sense of promise at Villa that can be fulfilled if they deal their cards right. Coutinho’s rekindled confidence and impact on the chances the side creates could be a step in the right direction.
Quotes: Sky Sports
Transfer sums: www.avfc.co.uk
Data: www.fbref.com, StatsZone
Data as of 1/4/22