With Philippe Coutinho struggling to find any form, Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard has a big call on his hands to get the best out of the Brazilian playmaker.
Gerrard took somewhat of a gamble at the time by placing significant faith in his former teammate, insisting that he needed to start enjoying his football again in order to get the best out of him.
The early signs were promising as Coutinho made an immediate impact and became an instant fan favourite, scoring goals and having a key influence on our play in the final third.
However, things have drifted badly so far this season as after 11 appearances, seven of which were starts, Coutinho has yet to register a single goal or assist and was left on the bench for our clash with Chelsea on Sunday.
Villa looked more threatening and displayed a more direct style of play in his absence in the first half, as we went for pace and movement on the wings with Ollie Watkins deployed on the left flank. Gerrard now faces a big decision as to whether Coutinho sits out again at Fulham, with intense speculation building over his future as Villa boss.
Adjust Coutinho’s role, position in Villa XI
“I have full confidence and belief in Phil,” Gerrard told the media on Wednesday in his pre-game press conference. “We will give him every bit of support he needs, you don’t lose talent and you don’t lose class.”
The problem is that his confidence and belief in Coutinho won’t have gone anywhere since he arrived and he would undoubtedly have been supporting him for the last couple of months and it’s not inspired him to impact games.
So, if nothing changes in terms of Coutinho’s role in the side, then are we and Gerrard simply crossing our fingers and hoping that something clicks at Craven Cottage where he produces what the Villa boss has yearned for in recent weeks in the form of a ‘moment of magic’?
Coutinho has predominantly been used on the left wing this season, and while he has floated inside and at times played in more of a No.10 role, his heat-map in most appearances will show that he spends most of his time out on the left.
What has become apparent in those outings is that the Brazilian international neither has the physical strength or the legs to outmuscle or burst past most right-backs that he has come up against.
Instead, he’s forced to drift inside, and more often than not, drop deeper into midfield to get onto the ball and try and make something happen.
To simply continue playing him out wide is a mistake, and so if he doesn’t have the abilities that he had previously, Gerrard needs to adapt and adjust by playing him in a different role where we can utilise his technical quality, vision and passing ability.
Further, Coutinho needs movement and runners off the ball around him to pick out passes and try to unlock defences, so it’s not just about tweaking his role, but thinking about what’s around him.
This is in itself a gamble as we’re essentially starting to build around a player who has struggled all season thus far, but if Gerrard is committed to getting the best out of him, then he has to start making changes.
Whether it’s in a 4-2-3-1 with Coutinho in the middle and the likes of Watkins, Emiliano Buendia or Leon Bailey either side of him and Danny Ings up ahead, or a 4-3-3 where he takes up Jacob Ramsey’s usual role on the left of the midfield three and can try to dictate play with his talent on the ball, there are options to consider.
It would allow Coutinho to find pockets of space in between the lines, give himself time to play probing final balls and have a bigger influence on our play. If we persist with him out wide, it’s only going to nullify his threat and see him struggle against physically imposing and quick defensive players who can press aggressively and make life difficult for him.
The tweaks above aren’t going to be a miraculous fix. Coutinho still has to raise his level and start performing. However, there’s simply no sense in persevering with a strategy that clearly isn’t working and hasn’t worked for weeks, and so Gerrard must try to find a solution, show tactical flexibility and versatility to put him in a position to shine and then it’s down to the player to produce.