Aston Villa's new signing Philippe Coutinho
Aston Villa's new signing Philippe Coutinho

Richard Jolly: Philippe Coutinho can fill Aston Villa's Jack Grealish void


This article was originally published prior to Aston Villa's 2-2 draw with Manchester United


The replacement for the £100 million man may have joined without a transfer fee. Steven Gerrard described Philippe Coutinho as “the magician” when he arrived from Barcelona.

Aston Villa may think there is something magical in getting him on a try-before-you-buy basis and with the option to acquire him for a third of the sum they banked for Grealish.

They can play the same positions, either as a No. 10 or off the left and they have both raised the bar for transfer fees.

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Grealish became the biggest Premier League buy ever, while Coutinho, who was sold by Liverpool for £142 million, is the second most expensive footballer in history.

However, the Brazilian was more prolific than the Englishman ever was.

Expect plenty of shots from Coutinho

The former Villa captain’s best season brought him 10 goals in all competitions; the former Liverpool player’s most productive campaign yielded 22, spread across Liverpool and Barcelona in 2017-18.

And what Coutinho brings is shots. He averaged the second most per 95 minutes in the Premier League in 2016-17 (4.37), and that average was slightly higher still at 4.43 in 2017-18 before his departure to Barcelona.

Philippe Coutinho: Statistics by league season

A similar figure would put him top in the division now, ahead of his former team-mate Mohamed Salah (3.94). Among Villa players with more than one shot, the best is Leon Bailey (2.76). As Villa stand 13th for shots (11.21 per game), Coutinho could take them up that particular table.

If the numbers suggest Coutinho’s statistical peak came between 2016 and 2018, when he scored 28 league goals in two seasons, from 196 shots, his individual numbers suggest his game is similar.

He has had fewer minutes but averages 4.06 shots per 95 for Barcelona this season. In 2019-20, when on loan at Bayern Munich, he recorded his best average of shots on target per 95, at 1.76. As a team, Villa only average 3.53 now.

If it helped that Coutinho has played for clubs higher up the league than Villa, thus creating more opportunities, it is also notable that many of his efforts are from long range.

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In the last eight league seasons, 348 of his 590 shots in league football have come from outside the box, bringing 22 goals.

That they have come from an expected goals (xG) total of just 11.26 shows he can reap a high reward from shots with a low statistical chance of going in.

In 2016-17, Liverpool scored the most goals in the Premier League from outside the box: Coutinho got a divisional best six of their 13 himself.

Coutinho shot map

However, his long-range shooting has declined: he only has two goals from outside the box since the start of the 2018-19 season and his shot on target percentage this season, 29.2, is his lowest; the previous lowest, 32.1, was last season.

Grealish, meanwhile, only scored four long-range league goals for Villa. Coutinho has scored with five free kicks in the Premier League, all in his last 18 months at Liverpool, whereas Villa have not scored any in the last 18 months.

What has happened to Coutinho?

Creatively, Coutinho’s numbers have dropped off from a peak in 2016-18. In 2017-18, spread across two clubs, he got 12 league assists.

He averaged 6.33 shot-creating actions per 95 minutes for Liverpool in 2017-18. Do that in the Premier League now and it would put him first, ahead of Kevin de Bruyne (5.75) and Grealish.

That the first Villa player on the chart, Emi Buendia, is 50th at 3.07 shows what a difference the Coutinho of old would make.

The more recent Coutinho averaged 2.86 shot-creating actions per 95 for Barcelona this season and 3.30 last season, albeit in bit-part roles.

Coutinho’s numbers at his prime for Liverpool are comparable with Grealish’s for Villa, with the Englishman averaging 6.18 shot creating actions per 95 last season and 5.18 the season before.

Now, no Villa player has more than three assists – Grealish got 10 last year – or an expected assists (xA) better than John McGinn’s 2.73.

Of players to play 800+ minutes this season, Buendia leads the way in terms of xA/95 with 0.20. Coutinho’s was twice as high, at 0.41, in 2017-18 for Liverpool and has been between 0.24 and 0.27 in four other campaigns.

villa xA/95

Can Coutinho replace Grealish?

The surprise may be that, over the years, Coutinho and Grealish have produced similar dribbling statistics.

The Englishman carried the ball for 5758 yards of progressive distance (runs of at least five yards forwards) last season, with 91 carries entering the final third.

In 2017-18, across two clubs and with more appearances, Coutinho carried it for 5349 yards of progressive distance, entering the final third 97 times. One difference is how far their runs took them: into the penalty box 80 times for Grealish and only 32 for Coutinho.

Half-way through this season, Villa are missing Grealish’s ball-carrying ability. Right-back Matty Cash has 1819 yards of progressive distance, with midfielder Jacob Ramsey second on 1473 and none of the front three up to 1000.

It means there are 41 midfielders or forwards in the division who have dribbled the ball further towards goal than any Villa player apart from Cash.

If part of Coutinho’s task is to replace Grealish the runner, part of it is to become the creator and scorer he was. As he reunites with Gerrard, a figure from his past, the question is if he can recreate his best days of 2016-18.


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