Since the departure of Luis Suarez in the summer of 2014, only one man has claimed the title of Liverpool superstar: Philippe Coutinho. The little Brazilian has twisted, turned, and volleyed his way into the hearts of Kopites since his arrival on Merseyside in January of 2013. His quick pace, creativity, and laser-like accuracy with shots from outside the box enabled him to thrive under Brendan Rodgers, who may consider Coutinho his best signing while at the helm.
But since his screamer against Stoke City handed Liverpool a 1-0 win on the opening day of this campaign, Coutinho has been surprisingly quiet. And a close look at the way the Reds play may explain it.
Coutinho rose to stardom in the 2013/14 campaign after signing for the club in January of that year. While the 13/14 season is remembered as a season of consistent tactical adjustment, Rodgers’ go-to system was a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Coutinho at the tip of the diamond behind dual strikers Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
As shown in the diagram below, when the Reds attack in the 5-1 home win to Arsenal, full backs Aly Cissoko and Jon Flanagan advance far up the pitch to offer width. Gerrard, Sterling and Henderson attract the attention of the opposition midfield and Coutinho takes up a position between the midfield and back four. When Coutinho comes into possession, Suarez and Sturridge play off the two centre-halves.
This enables Coutinho to play either a through ball between the defenders or into the channels on either side (white arrows). The advanced fullbacks further allow Coutinho passing options via a lateral ball (yellow arrows). Here, Coutinho has a minimum of five passing options every time he comes into possession near the box, enabling him to use his dribbling and passing skills to create quality goalscoring opportunities.
More importantly, these passing options make it difficult for any of the back four to commit to pressuring Coutinho (yellow circles below), giving him a zone of space (red) outside the box where he can create an opportunity to unleash a corker or curl one into the far corner.
This zone is largely lateral, ranging side to side almost the whole width of the box but without much depth. It’s this zone that is the key: Coutinho’s best strength is his ability to move the ball from horizontally across the pitch with his feet while opening up scoring opportunities via a diagonal or vertical pass.
That’s what might just be missing under this season under Rodgers and new manager Jurgen Klopp. In fairness to Klopp, the dip in Coutinho’s form predates the German’s arrival at Anfield, as he failed to stand out in most of Rodgers’ final games in charge, but the system Klopp brings with him might be slightly problematic for the creative number 10.
As illustrated below, Klopp tends to keep a fairly narrow team, lined up here as they were at the start of the second half against Southampton on 25 October. This would appear to be a fairly suitable formation for Coutinho, who has five immediate passing options in Lucas, Can, Lallana, Milner and the striker Benteke.
But when the team attacks, as seen below, the freedom of Milner and Lallana to flow freely across the pitch, coupled with the tendency of full backs Clyne and Moreno to advance further up the pitch than the fullbacks of 2013 would do, decrease the number of passing options for Coutinho and limit his zone of lateral mobility considerably, effectively eliminating his strengths.
Coutinho, to his credit, seemed more creative when switched to the left-hand side before his withdrawal, but the outlook doesn’t necessarily improve for Coutinho if Klopp’s system of gegenpressing – “counter pressing” in English – takes full effect at Anfield.
Counter pressing, as explained in-depth by Anfield Index writer Sam McGuire, is a high-intensity press of the ball when defending, with the objective being to win possession quickly in the middle or the park or in the attacking third. It can set a team on the counter attack if executed properly, and over the course of 90 minutes can be very effective in creating opportunities to score. But while Coutinho has excelled on the counter attack in his time at Anfield, there’s one element to the counter attack that has fueled the Brazilian’s effectiveness: space.
It’s almost ironic that a player who has such phenomenal control in close quarters does his best work when given space, but Coutinho requires it to produce his best work. And while he’s more than capable of creating it for himself, he will likely have a harder time making it if Liverpool employ the counter press.
Counter pressing takes many forms, but one of the most effective forms is that of the zone press: attacking passing lanes. When successful, it prevents the man on the ball from playing it, making it easier to win possession back. But in that situation, the press can work against a dribbler like Coutinho: if he wins the ball after a zone press, his own teammates occupy his most direct avenues to dribble into attack. And with a compact system, the amount of time it will take for his teammates to spread out into the shape that worked so well for Coutinho two years ago will all but enable the opposition to regain their shape and eliminate the counter.
While the mapping and statistics can be debated, as can the role in which Coutinho should be utilized under Klopp, there’s no doubting the quality of Liverpool’s number 10. If form is temporary and class is indeed permanent, then there’s little doubt that by hook or by crook, Philippe Coutinho is destined to return to the form that has the Kop singing his name every time he touches the ball.