Aston Villa shocked the footballing world last January when they announced the loan signing of Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona, on a six-month contract with an option to buy. The move saw the ex-Liverpool midfielder link up with another iconic Reds midfielder in Steven Gerrard, who was head coach at Aston Villa and oversaw the Brazilian’s signing.
Coutinho reportedly took a pay cut to join the Midlands side, despite receiving other offers from European clubs that would see him maintain his hefty Barcelona salary. The player was desperate to return to the Premier League, according to a Sky Sports article at the time of his signing.
In May, Villa confirmed that that had fulfilled the buy option within Coutinho’s contract, tying the Brazilian maestro into a deal that would run until 2026. He made sixteen appearances for the Villans before the summer break, scoring five times and registering three assists. Since then, Coutinho’s form has been on a gradual decline. The player hasn’t had a goal contribution in the league since the start of the season, and he now lacks the connection with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, who left the club in October.
Aaron Danks was introduced as caretaker manager and oversaw a 4-0 win over Brentford in his only game in charge, with Unai Emery soon brought in as his replacement. Villa have won three of their six games under the Spaniard, who seems to prefer playing a 4-4-2 as we’ve seen in recent games. Coutinho was out with a thigh injury when Emery arrived at Villa Park, returning to the action as a late substitute on Boxing Day.
With the Brazilian having now made three substitute appearances in the league and a start in Villa’s FA Cup elimination at the hands of Stevenage, questions will be raised over where he can slot into the Villa starting eleven. Despite his undoubtable quality, Coutinho tends to thrive more in a traditional 10 role, playing off the striker and exposing open areas with his phenomenal footwork – though he is also suited to playing on the left wing. Emery’s wingers don’t get forward all too much, and this could seriously hamper Coutinho’s involvement as his re-introduction could force the Spaniard into adapting his tactics once again. With that being said, Unai Emery employed a 4-3-3 against Stevenage – but Coutinho’s cameo on the left wing was far from convincing and led to him being replaced in the 66th minute.
Villa sat in 17th when Gerrard was sacked in mid-October, avoiding the relegation zone on goal difference. Emery’s efforts have since seen the team progress to 11th, with a comfortable 7 point gap between them and Everton who occupy 18th place at the moment.
The next three fixtures for Villa will be season-defining, as they face Leeds, Southampton and Leicester – all three teams have been underwhelming in the league so far. Things then begin to heat up for the Villa Park side, with an away game at the Etihad followed by hosting Arsenal six days later. Emery certainly has the chance to propel his side further up the league table if he can secure results in the upcoming fixtures – and he may even be able to clinch a shock result against the table toppers, having already defeated Manchester United, Brighton and Spurs so far.