Barcelona looked born again under Ronald Koeman on Thursday night and no one more so than Philippe Coutinho, who suddenly looks the player the club thought they had signed from Liverpool for £145million in January 2018.
In Barcelona’s new 4-2-3-1 system Coutinho is playing in the middle of the line of three behind the striker when the team attacks, and when they don’t have the ball he is charged with working to support the central midfield pair.
He is thriving with the attacking freedom and delivering on his defensive responsibilities too. It’s as if that first full season that ended in disappointment and a loan move to Bayern Munich never happened.
Bigger tests will come. Barcelona’s next three games against Sevilla, Getafe and Real Madrid are likely to ask far more questions of them than first two opponents Villarreal and Celta Vigo have done, but Coutinho was man-of-the-match in the driving Galician rain and there are even signs he could full the void left in Lionel Messi’s life by the departure of Luis Suarez.
Messi needs a new best friend and while 17-year-old Ansu Fati is the player Barcelona’s No 10 had taken under his wing, Coutinho could become the new side-kick.
When Coutinho arrived at Barcelona, Suarez helped him settle into the same Costa Brava beach town with his wife Aine where Messi and Suarez had set-up home.
Suarez may have left for the capital but Coutinho and Messi remain neighbours and the close group that includes Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique has welcomed the Brazilian back from his loan spell in Bavaria.
On the pitch Coutinho has certainly stayed close to Messi. Koeman’s grand plan is that Barcelona’s front four rotate positions. When Messi drops off that allows Coutinho to run beyond him, just as when Messi drifts wide he can change positions with Fati or Antoine Griezmann.
Coutinho set-up Fati for Barcelona’s first goal on Thursday night and he hit the post in the second half with a shot that could have led to Barcelona’s third goal had the tightest of offside decisions not denied Messi.
At the weekend it was his driving run, albeit completely unhindered by Villarreal’s generous midfield, that led to Fati’s second goal.
He will be back at the Nou Camp on Sunday for the visit of Sevilla. It was against Sevilla that Coutinho gave his greatest Barcelona performance to date. He was outstanding in the 2018 Copa del Rey final that Barca won 5-0. He set up the first goal for Suarez, and scored the fifth from the penalty spot.
That was Andres Iniesta’s last game for Barcelona and it felt like the passing of the baton with Coutinho now ready to replace the legend. In 13 seasons Iniesta had only scored 57 goals for Barcelona. In his first campaign Coutinho had managed 12 – so even if he fell short in other areas the potential was there for him to outdo the player he was replacing.
The following season with the No 7 on his back Coutinho lost his way but now with the old No 14 he wore in his first half-season he looks like he might really be able to offer Barcelona world-class midfield solutions.
Koeman certainly thinks so and if Thursday night’s performance was an indication of things to come Coutinho could be about to justify some of that massive fee and finally be a success at Barcelona.