Just because Serge Gnabry might not play again until February doesn’t mean Bayern Munich need to ring round for replacements. The only number interim coach Hansi Flick will be dialling is 10, for Philippe Coutinho…
Gnabry’s absence through Achilles tendon problems is a hammer blow - make no bones about it. The Germany international accounted for 25 per cent of Bayern’s 75 competitive goals during the first half of the season, scoring 11 and setting up eight across 22 games. He was also their second-highest marksman last term (13), and ranked fourth for assists (seven). In both instances, only Robert Lewandowski had a direct hand in more goals.
Kingsley Coman is a similar type of player - a rapid, surgically precise right-footed winger - but hasn’t featured since mid-December as a result of knee injury and isn’t expected to be fit to face Jürgen Klinsmann’s resurgent Hertha Berlin on Matchday 18. Alphonso Davies has been repurposed as the world’s best left-back-in-waiting, while Ivan Perisic does his finest work in front of the Canadian teenager as opposed to coming in off the opposite flank.
Watch: How Coutinho gives Bayern the X-factor
Bayern’s only remaining tried-and-tested wide man is Coutinho. The Barcelona loanee has lined up on the left-hand side in four of his 22 Bayern appearances since joining the record champions in the summer, and played on the right twice. The bulk of his workload has been in an attacking midfield role - what Flick refers to as the Brazil international’s "best position", though the numbers suggest otherwise.
Coutinho has scored three and assisted five in 16 matches from a central starting position, including one of each in wins against Bundesliga strugglers Paderborn and Cologne. That’s a goal or a assist every 1085 minutes. Compare that to the four goals and three assists in four games spanning 322 minutes as a left winger, chief among which was a hat-trick and brace of assists in the 6-1 demolition of Werder Bremen on Matchday 15.
Watch: Philippe Coutinho's Man of the Matchday heroics against Werder
That’s not to say Coutinho should be viewed as a direct replacement for the waylaid Gnabry. Even if O Magico has come up with the goods as a right winger in big games for Barcelona and former employers Liverpool - scoring against the likes of Valencia and Manchester City respectively - and was introduced in Gnabry’s stead on the right-hand side of the attack in Bayern’s 4-0 Klassiker win over Borussia Dortmund, to pigeon-hole him would be a great disservice. What use is a magician if he’s not allowed to think outside of the box?
"Philippe is a gifted footballer," enthused Flick during Bayern’s warm-weather training camp in Doha, Qatar. "I don't think we've integrated him enough yet [to see his best], though. The training camp was very good for him. There are a lot of things planned for next week, like ball work. It’s not been easy for him coming to a new country, but he’s getting better all the time. Hopefully, he'll progress further again and show what class he has in the game against Hertha."
To the naked eye, Coutinho’s overall contribution in a Bayern shirt to date might be seen as somewhat underwhelming for a playmaker who averaged a goal or assist every other game in the English Premier League. And yet, despite stepping out in a new country after a somewhat stagnatory spell at Barcelona, he is level with Gnabry as Bayern’s second-highest Bundesliga scorer, albeit with a superior conversion rate (six goals from 18 shots compared to 23).
What's more, Coutinho boasts better numbers in terms of pass completion than the two players ahead of him in the assists stakes, Thomas Müller and Gnabry (84 to 81 & 82 per cent). Impressive numbers, not least when you consider that the 61-time Brazil international made 70 competitive appearances for club and country in 2019 - a high among Bundesliga players - hitting his prime at the tail-end of the year with five goals and three assists in his last eight for Bayern alone. Gnabry, by contrast, turned out 52 times over the same period.
Watch: Philippe Coutinho is a December Player of the Month nominee!
What Coutinho accomplishes in the months ahead will shape his and Bayern’s destiny. The reigning champions trail Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig by four points ahead of the 2019/20 restart, and have a UEFA Champions League last-16 tie with Chelsea as well as their DFB Cup defence to contend with. They also have an option to buy their incumbent No.10 when his season-long loan from Barcelona expires in the summer.
"It's planned that I stay a year here," said Coutinho prior to the Bundesliga’s customary winter break. "I'm focussing on that time. I feel good here. If everything goes well, I really would like to stay."
So far, so good. In the space of less than five months, Coutinho has proven himself to be a Bayern-calibre player, capable of complementing the very best. Compensating, with Gnabry wrapped up in cotton wool and only 12 senior players at Flick’s disposal ahead of Sunday’s trip to the German capital, should be a cakewalk.