Since the turn of the New Year, Liverpool’s form has dipped – there can be no doubting that. Teams seemed to have picked up on Jürgen Klopp’s kryptonite: a low block, without any ambition to attack, frustrating and uncompromising in defensive stature. Palace, Hull, Swansea, Leicester; the reminders don’t need to be stated.
What does, is the alarming form of the golden (adopted) son of the Red half of Merseyside; one who embodies the closest thing to a “superstar” that Liverpool have; Phil Coutinho. He hasn’t been in the goal-involvement charts since his return from injury, his overall effectiveness cutting in off of the left hand side has wavered, and he hasn’t even been coming up with those little moments of magic that get fans all tingly in the stomach and weak in the knees.
It’s clear. Phil Coutinho doesn’t have space, and he doesn’t have confidence.
Any talk of Barcelona calling is nonsense while Coutinho remains a player that is only effective for a quarter of the season, and something needs to be done to harness his immense vision and close-quarters trickery. This, dear reader, is your writer’s plan.
Stick him in the middle where he belongs.
Trying to operate on the left hand side of a box stuffed full of opposition players isn’t a fun task. What you need, ideally, is someone like Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino; who’s able to ghost into a goalscoring position and poke home inside the box. Mane’s pace help too; it’s not only one of the key facets of countering a team who wants the ball, but it’s a handy tool to unlock defences on the counter-press: basically, when they do attack and the numbers in the box alleviate momentarily, Mane’s pace allows him to go from the shoulder of the centre midfielder to the outside of the full back in moments.
And Phil Coutinho is the one who should be playing that pass.
Too often we see Coutinho cut inside, beat a player, then look up and notice the lack of either a proper striker to aim at, or the sheer numbers between him and where he wants to be. The way he often gets into the box is a one-two with Roberto Firmino; but the Brazilian’s been double marked consistently since the turn of the new year. Firmino has to exit the box to get close to Coutinho, which then means there’s nobody in the box to receive the final pass. See the problem yet?
If you do, dear reader, then hopefully you see the solution. Stick Firmino on the left hand side, where he can operate as a “shadow striker” if you will (basically just a number nine that operates on the left, like one of Suarez or Sturridge did in 2013/14) and interchange with Coutinho, who will drive from the centre of the park rather than having to cut inside from the left consistently. No James Milner being a hindrance, more space to operate in, and his best buddy there for all the one-two’s and deft touches he could dream of.
It’s cheating, really, but your writer is only going to focus on the stats that he thinks matter. And by that, the obvious meaning is the stats that this writer likes, because they work in his favour. The fact that he makes more dribbles and key passes (both are incredibly marginal, to the tune of 0.1 per game, but it is what it is) operating on the left in season 2016/17 than in the middle during season 2013/14. However, the ones that caught your writer’s eye make for some interesting reading.
He took fewer shots per game (2.8) than he’s made this season (3.3) – and you can’t guarantee that is a good thing. Phil has scored 6 goals from a grand total of 70 shots (per premierleague.com) – which is 8 less than Firmino, who’s been playing striker. His now standard trick of cutting inside from the left and shooting is – despite its resemblance to Arjen Robben’s similar tactic – mostly ineffective when there are eight bodies in the way. But to have Phil pulling the strings from deeper, making late runs into the box, and having bodies have to face up to him rather than wait for him to make the move would play to the little Brazilian’s strengths.
Meanwhile, his chance creation tracks along similar lines: 64 in 2013/14, in 33 appearances, and 45 so far this season, in 21 appearances. That’s more significant than you’d think too; if he can still create as much from the middle of the park as he does on the left, then Liverpool have a creative facet in midfield, to match the steel and drive. He also made more tackles (2.2) per game in 2013/14 than in his output this season (1.1) and, interestingly, Adam Lallana (1.8) this season. Finally, the amount of through balls he hits are doubled when he’s played in the middle of the park (0.4 as opposed to 0.2) – something that makes him more dangerous with a lethal striker moving off of the defender’s shoulder.
So, the defensive contribution, opting to pass over shooting, having the game spread out before him, and a tendency to put in a through ball. Phil Coutinho belongs in the midfield, and against the teams on the lower end of the table, it could be a game-changer.