Coutinho's dream debut hints at why Aston Villa is ideal club to rebuild Barcelona flop's career

Philippe Coutinho Aston Villa 2021-22Getty Images

Aston Villa supporters could hardly have asked for a more perfect start for Philippe Coutinho.

His equaliser against Manchester United, as well as the hand he played in Jacob Ramsey's goal, set Villa Park alight on Saturday, sending expectation levels sky high in the process.

Delirious supporters leaving the stadium have every right to feel convinced that Coutinho will be a huge player for the club over the next five months.

Neutrals may feel a little differently, though. There is a tendency to read too much into dream debuts and many will remain sceptical, waiting for a few more games before deciding on the true value of the Brazil international.

We all saw what happened to James Rodriguez at Everton last season, for example, despite his incredible start under Carlo Ancelotti.

But unlike James, who joined a crisis club without experience of the Premier League or a clear role to play at Goodison Park, Coutinho and Villa are a much more natural fit. Tactically speaking, there is a very good chance that his cameo on Saturday evening is indicative of what is to come.

Coutinho has always been a strange player, one who does not quite fit into most conventional positions. He is not quite a left winger, preferring instead to play in the left half-space, and is not particularly reliable as a sole No.10, such is his tendency to drift in and out of matches.

That was arguably his biggest problem at Barcelona, who tended to play Coutinho on the left of a 4-3-3 that demands he play out on the flanks. He is uncomfortable there. and he never really settled, other than during his first six months at Camp Nou when Ernesto Valverde utilised a 4-2-2-2 formation.

The position of the inside forwards in that 4-2-2-2 is almost exactly the same as the principle role he will occupy in Steven Gerrard's ‘Christmas Tree’ 4-3-2-1 at Villa: arguably the perfect formation to get the most out of Coutinho.

In this shape, the 29-year-old will remain narrowly in that left half-space at all times, rarely having to drop back to help defensively but instead lurking dangerously behind the striker. What's more, the presence of a second No.10 reduces the pressure on him to drive the team.

As we saw in Villa's unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup, when Emiliano Buendia constantly found himself with a five-metre radius of space between the defensive and midfield lines, defending dual No.10s does not come easy.

Coutinho should find plenty of opportunities, then, to unleash his trademark long shots, a feature that Gerrard of all people will surely encourage.

Philippe Coutinho Aston Villa GFX
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The signing of Lucas Digne should also help Coutinho significantly. He might not be a direct Jack Grealish replacement, but Coutinho's ability to drop a shoulder and dribble past players, drawing defenders towards him, is similar to how Grealish created space for an overlapping left-back during his time at Villa Park.

And that is a crucial component of Gerrard's system, in which Digne will be given licence to overlap and swing crosses into the box. The ‘Christmas Tree’ shape attracts the opposition into a narrow position, allowing the full-backs to sneak into space and – via quick switches of play through the No.8s – receive the ball on the edge of the box.

There have been some questions raised about Coutinho's ability to play alongside Villa’s club-record signing Buendia, and indeed it does look as though Gerrard will have to sacrifice pace to have both players in the team.

But aside from the obvious advantage of having two intelligent players capable of a through ball to feed Danny Ings, Gerrard may also look to use Coutinho as a ‘free eight’.

This is the position he played in towards the end of his Liverpool career, when a run of 12 goals and nine assists in the first half of the 2017-18 season earned him his dream move to Barca.

Philippe Coutinho Liverpool GFX
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Coutinho's work ethic and defensive qualities are under-rated, and he fit in well as an advancing midfielder under Jurgen Klopp, adding verticality in much the same way Harvey Elliot did before his injury earlier this season.

If Gerrard feels the need for Villa to play with speed on the counterattack, then Coutinho could also find himself driving forward from a deeper position. That is what Ramsey has done with great success under the new management, making surging runs in the style of Gerrard the player.

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The credit for this goes to Gerrard's coaching team, who have already set in motion some complex triangles in midfield that see Villa very quickly move in one-touch passes through the lines.

The level of tactical detail, of pre-set moves worked out on training, is considerably higher than it was under Dean Smith, and there is no doubt this will suit someone like Coutinho: talented and adventurous, but in need of focus.

All of this was true before his phenomenal debut on Saturday. And while it is too soon to promise that Coutinho will be a success at Villa Park, everything is in place for him to rediscover his best form.