Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Philippe Coutinho to Aston Villa: Why Steven Gerrard’s new loan signing could hurt Emi Buendia’s production

When Jack Grealish left for Manchester City, the Aston Villa recruitment team identified what he did well and zeroed in on three players to fill that role. Those players were Danny Ings, Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia. Fast forward five months, Aston Villa are realizing how tall of a task replacing Grealish is.

Sitting 13th in the table, Villa moved on from Dean Smith in November and appointed Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as boss. On Friday, they announced the addition of Brazilian Barcelona outcast Philippe Coutinho on loan with an option to secure a permanent deal for his services if things work out. Villa might not be done making moves as they are expected to spend on a left back. But with regards to Coutinho loan, was this move an admission that the plan to replace Grealish did not work out, or are they bolstering the squad to truly compete for silverware next season?

Since Gerrard has taken charge, Villa has mainly played a 4-3-3 with Buendia on one of the wings. He has gotten creative with formations, using Buendia in the middle behind two forwards when Danny Ings is healthy. As Coutinho, who has ties to Gerrard dating back to their Anfield days, prefers the left wing, the expected setup would probably be a front three of Coutinho, Ollie Watkins and Buendia.

This isn’t something that Ings and Bailey would like to hear, but as they’ve spent significant time on the treatment table, Gerrard could have come to terms that they’re best used from the bench or as rotational options. With Bailey in particular, who has one goal and two assists from the bench this season, there could be some merit to this thought process as well.

If this is a vision that Gerrard is able to sell to the team, things could go quite well if Coutinho can stay healthy and contribute. But that’s where things get tricky. Since the 2017-18 season, during which he scored 15 goals and assisted 11 more for both Liverpool and Barcelona, Coutinho’s production has dipped. Ankle and muscle injuries have hampered him for the past few years as Coutinho hasn’t cracked 25 starts since his first season at Barcelona and only played 2,000 minutes once since then.

In his limited appearances, he was effective especially the lone season on loan with Bayern Munich in 2019-20 where he scored six and assisted seven over 23 appearances (15 starts). The good news is that if things don’t work out, the option to purchase Coutinho can be declined and he will return to Barcelona but in the short term, assuming that he is a starter, coexistence with the squad and management of expectations by Gerrard will be key.

After signing so many players, balancing playing time needs is important especially for those who hailed from the Aston Villa academy who may be considering their options now. There are also fringe players like Trezeguet, Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traore who will either move during this window or get pushed further down the pecking order. As a new manager, these are times when the changing room can turn on you if not handled properly. While Gerrard has had to manage these expectations at Rangers, with how fluid things are at Aston Villa, this will be quite a different challenge especially if the moves don’t pan out.

Returning to the pitch. at their best, Coutinho and Buendia are ball-dominant players looking to shoot first and set up others second. But while Coutinho has demonstrated the ability to do that in the Premier League on the wing for Liverpool, Buendia hasn’t. Some of this isn’t his fault as he gets shuttled between being a true No. 10 and a winger, but it’s weird to see a player who took 71 and 110 shots in two seasons in the Championship with Norwich City then drop to 40 and 19 shots in two Premier League seasons.

21

2018-19

Norwich

Championship

1st

71

8

12

22

2019-20

Norwich

Premier League

20th

40

1

7

23

2020-21

Norwich

Championship

1st

110

15

15

24

2021-22

Aston Villa

Premier League

13th

19

1

3

It isn’t like Buendia is bad at shooting either. He scored 23 goals across two Championship seasons. When he is direct and on the ball, he is at his best. Adding Coutinho to the mix means there will be less of the ball to spread around. Coutinho is a volume shooter with a career average of 3.61 shots taken per 90 minutes and he also attempts 4.5 dribbles per 90. Buendia averaged 2.99 last season at Norwich and 1.62 this season at Villa. Because of that, we could see Buendia fade into the background for Aston Villa.

Buendia was Villa’s record signing for a fee of $42.2 million last summer and they’ll want the two to coexist or the original crop of transfers to replace Grealish will end poorly. There is the possibility that Coutinho has adapted his game as he ages to work better in this system but if both Buendia and Coutinho need the ball at their feet to succeed, one may trip the other up.

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