Barcelona's protracted pursuit of Philippe Coutinho has finally come to fruition, and with the Brazilian now calling the Camp Nou home, Blaugrana boss Ernesto Valverde faces a slew of options for including the set-piece specialist in the starting XI.
After unparalleled success and countless trophies using a Dutch-inspired 4-3-3, Valverde has tinkered with tactics in his first season with the club. The gaffer has dabbled with 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 formations, but it's a 4-4-2 set up that's proved the most prosperous.
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Lionel Messi is given free reign to run amok as an emphasis on tiki-taka and crafty passing has shifted toward a system that values efficiency and defensive competence. The results have been nothing short of stunning as Barcelona leads La Liga without a loss and with just three goals conceded to 45 scored.
With Coutinho certain to make an immediate impact in Valverde's starting XI, here's a look at three ways Barcelona can line up for the second half of the season, keeping in mind that the Brazilian is cup-tied and ineligible to play in the Champions League:
Sticking with what's worked best, a 4-4-2 formation would see Coutinho positioned on the left side of a four-man midfield. With Ousmane Dembele opposite the tricky Brazilian, Barcelona would be a nightmare to defend going forward. Messi can roam in support of Luis Suarez and drop deep to provide a link between midfield and attack. At home to lowly goal-starved Las Palmas, this is an ideal formation where Sergio Busquets is relied upon as the sole source of ball-stopping.
Against stronger teams who thrive on the wings, Coutinho's and Dembele's inclusions in a 4-4-2 could amount to liabilities. Full-backs Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo are also open to charging forward, potentially further exposing vulnerable wide areas. Barcelona did employ this formation to stunning results in the 3-0 El Clasico win at Real Madrid, but it was Iniesta and Paulinho who lined up wide, and not the attack-minded tandem of Coutinho and Dembele.
Acting as Neymar's replacement in a reprisal of the MSN front-three, Coutinho would pair with South American brethren Suarez and Messi to form one of the continent's most feared attacks. With Brazil, Coutinho often plays on the right to accommodate Neymar's preferences. With Neymar enjoying the luxuries of the French capital after a stunning summer move to Paris Saint-Germain, Coutinho could play in a spot he's enjoyed great success in this season at Liverpool alongside Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
For all of Coutinho's dazzling qualities, it's difficult to think of an area besides shots from distance where the crafty passer is superior to like-for-like technical whiz Neymar. If Valverde is wary of placing on Coutinho the pressures of filling his countryman's boots, the manager might want to deploy the player in another role. This formation also means €150-million man Dembele comes off the bench, while Paulinho could start in place of Iniesta.
Without a doubt one of his generation's best players, Iniesta has started to show signs of a decline despite featuring prominently for Barcelona this season with 18 appearances in all competitions. While replacing a transcendent legend like the World Cup winner is a tough ask, Coutinho has the tools in his locker to mimic Iniesta's varied virtues. Should Valverde opt for this variation of the 4-3-3, Coutinho would pull the strings from a deeper role as Dembele shifts to the left to pair with Suarez and Messi.
In terms of negative consequences, this formation offers fewer potential shortcomings than the previous two. Concerns of getting caught out against the run of play where the wide midfielder is forced to cover for an out-of-position Busquets is a rarity that Barcelona has encountered in only extraordinary circumstances under Valverde.