However, with a noticeable dip in Coutinho’s recent performance and Ernesto Valverde’s preference for young Ousmane Dembele on the wing, the 26-year-old Brazilian has found himself in a difficult situation, with slight criticism beginning to come from team management.
Prior to Barcelona’s surprising 2-1 loss to Levante in the Copa del Rey final 16, Valverde’s assistant Jon Aspiazu gave a newsworthy response when asked about the Brazilian’s recent lack of playing time. “Coutinho is perhaps not at last year’s level and Dembélé has passed a little above him,” Aspiazu said on the GOL television broadcast of the match. He did reverse that take slightly, following up with, “But he is a player which we consider as a starter and will be very important for us in the remainder of the season, for sure.”
Coutinho has not started any of the last four La Liga matches, with Barcelona winning those four games against Espanyol, Levante, Celta Vigo, and Getafe by a combined 13-1. Valverde not only has directly replaced the Brazilian in the starting lineup with 21-year-old Dembele, but Valverde has added Arturo Vidal to the midfield duo of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, leaving absolutely no room for Coutinho in the lineup.
Coutinho did start the Copa del Rey loss to Levante and play the full 90 minutes, but he was uninspiring despite bagging a late goal from the penalty spot, with Barcelona looking lost in Lionel Messi’s absence. He completed just one pass in the penalty area and collected two key passes, failing to register a single shot on target outside his penalty.
After the Copa del Rey defeat, Valverde was asked about Coutinho’s weakening squad position, and he was far more diplomatic than Aspiazu, but still managed to acknowledge the situation. “If a player is not happy, he has to fight to reverse the situation,” Valverde said.
With ranking club staff addressing the situation publicly and his agents reportedly firing back privately, Coutinho’s status with the Barcelona squad feels like it’s at a crossroads. Despite Barcelona’s surprising Copa del Rey loss, they still hold a five-point lead at the top of the La Liga table, and this could all possibly be for nothing should the Brazilian improve his play and earn more time on the pitch. However, if he continues to ride the bench through the next month, it could trigger clubs to try and pry him away from the Catalan club and take advantage of his worsening squad position.