Stop me if you’ve heard this one: it’s early in the Bundesliga season and Bayern Munich are in panic mode. It happened with Carlo Ancelotti in the fall of 2017, then with Niko Kovac (albeit after a hot start in the first four games) last year and well, it's happening again.
Enter Philippe Coutinho.
The basics are as follows: 27-year-old Coutinho is now a Bayern player, after the Bavarians paid an €8.5 million fee and another €13 million in wages for a year of his services, with Barca quick to disclose that there was also a purchase option set at €120 million. Without recapping his largely challenging, if not disastrous spell at Barcelona, he basically failed to live up to expectations: he couldn’t be the Iniesta they needed in midfield and suffered out on the left because as Messi is Messi, it was always going to be hard to maintain his numbers.
This was not how the offseason was supposed to work for the Bavarians: following a last-minute league and cup double, Kovac had erased the bitter taste of a tepid Champions League exit at the hands of Liverpool and won the power struggle against the old guard, with Ribéry (since signed with Fiorentina), Robben, Rafinha (who did not even get a farewell after being snubbed in the last game thanks to a Goretzka injury), James Rodríguez and Hummels all departing. Kovac and Hasan Salihamidzic had the support of the conservative club president Uli Hoeness and were able to fight off the more progressive Karl-Heinz Rummennige in a rebuilding compromise.
In Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, they bought --for €115 million-- two versatile, French, World-Cup winning defenders who can play fullback and centre back. All was fine in June, Bayern were finally opening their wallets, pursuing Leroy Sané and a host of other targets - sure Salihamidzic did not secure some tantalising targets (Hudson Odoi, Pépé, Dembélé), but things were generally looking fine. Not for long. It only needed one pretty unlucky Supercup match against Dortmund who didn’t play particularly well but took their chances better. They won with only one new arrival (Nico Schulz) playing, while Bayern made mistakes in possession, struggled in defensive transition and Kovac’s 4-3-3 looked more vulnerable than the combined health of all their wingers from the last few years. In the aftermath of Germany’s unofficial season kickoff, Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich, lucky to get away with a nasty stamp on Jadon Sancho, threw veiled darts at the board, while Robert Lewandowski outright demanded immediate help.
Hertha the bogey team
But at least, in the first league match against Hertha they could right some of the wrongs? They brought in Ivan Perisic, but he carried a Serie A suspension and wasn’t allowed to play. Surely, newly flush Hertha, with a new manager in Ante Covic, would struggle in the Allianz Arena and all would be right in the world? Well, not quite: although Bayern once again dominated throughout the match, aside from Lewandowski, nobody was able to convert their chances. Kovac’s frequent tactics (4-3-3) were rejected in favour of the problematic 4-2-3-1 that hadn’t fully worked in matches against Leverkusen, Dortmund and Liverpool. They also had wing-isolation issues, trouble progressing the ball through the centre, and much like in several matches last autumn, conceded a couple of freaky goals. The first was by former Düsseldorf man and Bayern bogeyman Dodie Lukebakio, scoring on a deflection that left Neuer helpless. Sound familiar so far?
The second goal arrived from a through ball after an aerial duel that left Pavard and probably goal-scorer Marko Grujic concussed - based on his inexplicable judo move on Lewandowski in the 56th minute. Dropped points on top of Dortmund and Leipzig thrashing their respective opponents by four goals each and Bayern are already behind in the title race. That’s at least different than the last few seasons, for which the first few matchdays started well before running to difficulties. So, progress?
Given that anything but a Bayern win was going to result in city-wide tabloid panic in Munich, further moves needed to be made. The bench looked bare. In defense of Kovac his lone forward option was Kwasi Wriedt, who has 22 Bundesliga minutes and only 25 appearances for Bayern’s amateur team but waiting until the 85th minute to make your first substitute is not an optimal situation.
Almost like a poker player on tilt after a bad hand, the board quickly approved the purchases of Gladbach’s promising Mickael Cuisance for €12 million and the Coutinho loan. How might the new pieces fit, what problems they might solve and is it going to be enough for Bayern in the 2019/20 season?
Will the real Philippe Coutinho please stand up?
Coutinho's evolution from Liverpool to Barcelona has been somewhat missed. He transitioned from being a high volume, and at times inefficient long-range shooter to a useful cog in the Barcelona machine who could afford to pick better shots. It’s a little bit like a primary volume scorer on an NBA team accepting a second/third scoring role on a title-chasing team, with the massive caveat that Liverpool of course ended up winning the title after dispatching Barcelona in an all-time classic Champions League semi-final. In the end Barcelona felt that Coutinho wasn’t quite the attacking fit Antoine Griezmann might be and perhaps lacked that burst of creativity that Ousmane Dembélé provides. That is how the consensus changed from being one of the best players in the world to perhaps the biggest big money transfer flop in recent memory. Given that until last Friday, there was not a serious offer for his considerable wages and armed with an 18 month spell of evidence of Coutinho not fitting, Barcelona rightfully, perhaps gleefully, accepted Bayern’s offer. Perhaps it’s the popularity of Coutinho from his Liverpool days, or a rightful level of enthusiasm, but at any rate over 1500 fans showed up to his first Bayern training and he’s already billed as a sort of savior.
Perhaps he will be, as there is a lot of chatter how Bayern are ready to change their system around him and play him as a ten in the 4-2-3-1. That would mean using Javi Martínez next to Thiago as the double six behind Coutinho. It also means putting the 4-3-3 on the back-burner and perhaps less playing time for the likes of Thomas Müller (backup winger and ten), Leon Goretzka or Corentin Tolisso.
That crowded midfield got more jammed with Cuisance arrived. I see him as a somewhat younger version of James, and profiled him here, but very much a long-term project. Technically he’d be ready to play major minutes for most Bundesliga teams, and he’s a great dribbler (heading towards four per 90 in limited minutes last season) and ambitious passer, though under pressure he is more turnover prone and more long ball happy than Tolisso.
Questions about his defensive desire (pressing) or attitude - he drove without a license last season, and is thought to have demanded a starting job after preseason, led Max Eberl and the Marco Rose/Rene Maric duo to cash in on him. When three of the smarter Bundesliga minds, with a reputation for scouting and developing young players, pass on an ultra-talented guy who just turned 20 last week, that’s at least a small red flag. In a vacuum, I would’ve loved this move in about May, before Bayern retained Renato Sanches and bought in Coutinho, who they are now looking to build their squad around.
This potential overhaul is interesting as Bayern under Kovac were not willing to do that for a similarly creative talented La Liga disappointment in James Rodríguez last season, who had perhaps his best overall season under don Jupp Heynckes after the Ancelotti experiment went sideways.
James’ final injury and drama-riddled Bayern season saw him still put up 2.33 open play key passes which was roughly the same as Coutinho in the first half of 2017/18 at Liverpool. In Spain, Coutinho lost about a key pass per game compared with his time at Liverpool, with the xG Assisted numbers following in tandem. Looking at the chance creation data, Liverpool Coutinho was excellent at creating a ho-hum shot for just about anyone (and himself), but with some good box entries via through balls in his second Barca season, a rate which rose up to 0.81/90 from a paltry 0.13 at Liverpool and 0.39 at Barcelona in 2017/18. Interestingly, a lot of Coutinho’s chances created were from generally similar areas to where James likes to take up positions. The Colombian on the other hand is much more about box entries, with the finishing of Robert Lewandowski (recall about two 0.5 xG chances vs Freiburg and Schalke assisted by James) perhaps letting his overall assist numbers down.
There are several upsides to the Coutinho transfer for Bayern and the player: Kovac’s change from a 4-3-3- to a 4-2-3-1 is similar to what Tite at Brazil does in some of the bigger matches, and we saw at the Copa America how Coutinho can thrive in that system. Without a bigger star like Neymar, he led the tournament for both shot volume and chances created. Much like his time at Liverpool he thrived in a system that enabled him to be the main creative force and if Bayern get that “I learned at Barcelona how better to create for others” version of Coutinho who will still take the odd long shot, they’ll be very happy.
One huge advantage over the likes of Thomas Müller or the much more vertically-playing Goretzka is that the Brazilian can operate in the spaces in the middle against a lot of the press heavy Bundesliga defenses. Even the very best of midfielders who operate here like Axel Witsel and the artist formerly known as Julian Weigl, or Leipzig’s Diego Demme and Kevin Kampl lack footspeed and change of direction to keep up with Coutinho’s fakes and dribbles. Other contenders are relying on not the most athletic number sixes in the world (Kramer, Baumgartlinger, Grillitsch, Rode) against whom Coutinho could thrive. Another bonus is that neither of Bayern’s wingers take that many shots: the breakout player of last season Serge Gnabry is in the low threes vs the five plus Messi took and Coman is right at two a game. Thomas Müller has declined to the 2.5 range from the 3.5 under Pep Guardiola and while he puts up very good advanced stats, he has been behind xG for multiple seasons. Even Robert Lewandowski was at a career low 4.4 shots per 90 last campaign, so there’s likely to be some shots up for grabs for Coutinho. If Kovac figures out how to use him better than James, admittedly a low bar to jump over, this could actually be an excellent move and short term Coutinho could well be one of the superior Bundesliga players. At the very least, it’s made an already freakishly exciting season in Germany with Dortmund’s juggernaut, Nagelsmann at Leipzig, Glasner and Rose coming in, to name just a few, even more fascinating.
Header photo courtesy of the Press Association