The arrival of Philippe Coutinho at Bayern Munich on an initial season-long loan from Barcelona has, in one fell swoop, partially ended the debate as to the lack of depth in the Bavarian’s attack. The question now is how best to utilise the talent that Niko Kovac has at his disposal.
Do Bayern change their formation to best fit the mercurial Brazilian, or do they shoe-horn his sublime talent into the existing set-up?
It would all have been so much easier had Leroy Sane not injured his anterior cruciate knee ligament against Liverpool in the English Community Shield at Wembley. Bayern would in all likelihood have signed the ex-Schalke winger for €100+ and then employed him on the flank in the 4-3-3 formation preferred by Niko Kovac last season.
Damn that fragile piece of fibrous tissue! The injury forced Uli Hoeness, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Hasan Salihamidzic to look elsewhere for reinforcements. Ivan Perisic was the first addition and he will most likely fill in as understudy to wide men Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.
The capture of Coutinho from Barcelona however, while clearly strengthening Bayern’s squad, may just open a can of worms regarding the best deployment of the 27-year-old. At just €8.5 million, the signing of the former Liverpool man is a no-brainer in terms of economcs, but Niko Kovac now has a decision to make regarding tactics.
A round peg in a square hole?
According to Dietmar Hamann writing in Kicker, Bayern have just signed “one of the best number 10’s in the world”. In addition, his former Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp has stated that he has not seen a player, who can do what Coutinho can since Alessandro del Piero dazzled at Juventus.
“Coutinho didn’t get to play in his preferred No.10 role all that much when he was with us, but he’s a great No.8 and is a fantastic left winger because he’s incredibly good in tight spaces and has the pace to exploit bigger spaces,” Klopp explained to Kicker this week.
“He dominates football matches, and is a real asset if he can put his stamp on the team. Bayern needed him, and Bayern wanted him. If they can integrate him and get the very best out of him, the Bundesliga will have a top player on its hands.”
So Coutinho plays, but where?
The most obvious solution would be for Bayern to bend to Coutinho’s strengths and switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation with the Brazilian operating directly behind Robert Lewandowski with Gnabry and Coman on the flanks. The problem being that Thomas Müller would need to be sacrificed.
The ‘Little Wizard’, as he was known at Liverpool, would then be able to use his ability to create chances, shoot from range and unlock deep-lying defences with his passing ability. Anyone, who watched this summer’s Copa America would have witnessed exactly this.
At Barcelona he was pretty much denied the chance to do this due to the presence of a certain Lionel Messi in the area he would have dearly loved to have occupied. Could Bayern unleash the pent-up beast using this formation?
Yes, but at the expense of fan favourite Müller as well as limiting the playing time for Leon Goretzka. Oh the selection headaches that any other Bundesliga coach would love to have.
The 4-3-3 with Müller
Coutinho has stated his preferred role is as a number 10, but with his ability he could equally do a job for Bayern playing at number 8 in the trusted 4-3-3 line-up. Granted the selection of Lewandowski, Coman, Gnabry, Müller and Coutinho in that formation would leave only Thiago as the defensive minded midfielder and while Thiago is a wonderful player, defensive minded he isn’t.
That would mean a need for Javi Martinez, or even Joashua Kimmch to step into the traditional number 6 role and anchor the team, allowing the attacking talent to do it’s thing.
Kimmich has slowly been converted by Joachim Löw into a defensive midfielder and the arrival of Coutinho could hasten a similar development at Bayern. Kovac has World Cup winner Benjamin Pavard, who he could deploy at right back, leaving Kimmich free to advance into the key role at the heart of the team. peaking earlier in the year, the player himself expressed the desire to be given the chance to play in midfield for Bayern.
“I want to play in a central role so I can be involved and reach more players on the pitch. As a right-back, you’re not always 100% involved in the game, which is quite different from the six position. I know the position from an early age, I’ve always played there in my youth, as I’ve often said. If I had to pick one position, then it’s the “6,” and in the long run, my goal is to play as a six.”
The other option would be to just deploy Coutinho wide on the left where Leroy Sane would have been selected and where he played for Barcelona (and successfully at Liverpool).
That is wholly plausible and would circumvent the whole Müller and Kimmich as a DM debate, but is it the best use of a sublime talent? The reason he didn’t quite live up to expectations at the Nou Camp was the fact that he had to play in the shadow of Messi in an unfavoured position.
To get the best out of Coutinho, you need to play him where he wants to play. That means centrally, but that means potentially tough questions need to be faced. Do Bayern bend to accommodate Coutinho, or does Coutinho have to adapt to fit the Bayern way? Niko Kovac- it’s over to you.
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