I think it’s fair to say that when Phillipe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are on the pitch together, Liverpool have been at their most electric. Chances upon chances, bodies getting into good positions within the 18-yard box, and fluidity up front that fans haven’t seen for two years. This is, indeed, all well and good.
But what are the hard numbers for this creativity that we’ve only seen brief glimpses of so far? Injuries and manager Jurgen Klopp’s tactical reconstruction of the team has seen the two Brazilians playing in closer to one another, but not as often as we’d like. From the first match to the most recent of this Premier League season, what can the stats show us about the relationship between Coutinho and Firmino?
There are a couple things that need to be lined out before we begin. What I’ve looked at is the impact of Coutinho and Firmino while on the pitch together and compared it to all other situations in which they’re not together. Specifically in terms of chance creation, what to do the two offer when they anchor what’s typically been a front three? What are the drawbacks statistically when they’re not on the pitch with one another?
Through gameweek 16 of the Premier League, there have been a total of 1,440 minutes available to all players. Coutinho and Firmino have only played together for 344 of them – less than a quarter of the league minutes thus far. Because Firmino has had some bedding-in periods and a back injury that kept him out of the team for three weeks, Coutinho has played predominantly without his Brazilian counterpart.
The little magician has spent 727 minutes on the pitch without Firmino, which compared to Firmino’s 229 minutes without Coutinho, shows that Bobby still has some settling in to do before Klopp includes him week in and week out. Only 140 minutes all season have been spent without one or the other on the pitch for the Reds.
To look at the season as it stands, Liverpool have created 191 chances, ranking third in the league as a side (behind only Arsenal and Manchester City). In terms of minutes per chance, or average numbers of minutes it takes Liverpool to create a chance, the Reds stand strong as well: 7.54 minutes per chance.
Not too shabby, all things considered. But, by splitting the chances into those created with Coutinho and Firmino, with just Coutinho or Firmino, and with neither of them on the pitch shows the pairing’s impact on the side when they’re together.
In the 344 minutes Liverpool have had Coutinho and Firmino on the field, 45 chances have been created, translating to 7.64 minutes per chance. Slightly below the team average, but still statistically strong as far as the league goes. And for those using the eye test, what chances they have been when we’ve seen these two play near each other – I quote City and Chelsea score lines, of course.
When playing one or the other, there’s a strong gap between Firmino without Coutinho and the opposite combination. When Firmino is playing with ten other men, team chance creation drops to 22 in 229 minutes – an average of 10.41 minutes per chance. We can attribute this to many things, I believe, including his injury recovery and the need for time in the league. Also, 550 minutes total is not enough to judge an individual player.
When Coutinho is without Firmino, team chance creation rivals the best in the league even more fiercely – 105 chances in those 727 minutes. That’s a chance every 6.92 minutes, an astounding number. Compared to Firmino’s lone average minutes per team chance, it’s clear that it’s far more important for at least Coutinho to be on the pitch. But, while the little man is desperately needed for chance creation, the larger Brazilian needs to see the field in order to mesh with Coutinho and the rest of the squad.
Without either on the pitch, there’s a bit of a surprise – 19 chances in 140 minutes for a chance every 7.37 minutes
Wait a minute…that can’t be right? After all the brilliance we’ve seen out of the duo in the attacking midfield, the stats show that the only time the team creates less than when Firmino is alone… is when he and Coutinho are together?
Some might consider it preposterous, but it’s a statistical assertion that has merit. Again, the two have only played about a quarter of the season’s available minutes together. Though their time playing for the Brazilian national team has allowed them to work together outside Anfield, their Liverpool time is limited. Another shout, and perhaps the more important one, is their positional roles throughout the season.
Former manager Brendan Rodgers and current gaffer Jurgen Klopp have used the pair differently, and the results are plain to see. The Northern Irishman continuously used the two in wide positions, away from each other and in unnatural roles. Klopp, on the other hand, keeps them tightly linked on the periphery of the attacking midfield, allowing his central midfielders like Jordan Henderson to surge forward without cluttering up space.
Under Rodgers, the side created 90 chances in 720 minutes for an average of 8 minutes per chance. Klopp so far has reduced that time by nearly an entire minute, with 101 chances in the same time for 7.12 average minutes per chance. With different personnel and a longer period of time with the German at the helm, that number is almost assured to continue dropping.
So what does this mean? I’ve just thrown number after number at you for nearly 900 words now.
It means that, as a pair in the midfield, Coutinho and Firmino are important. Duh. But by the numbers, there are also other conclusions that need to be drawn. One of several is that the fitness of Coutinho needs to be managed, but not so much that he sees a lot less of the pitch. His chance creation, which stats and the eye test can both attest to, is vital to the side in the attack. With his recent calf injury, there has to be caution when considering him for selection. But the question shouldn’t be whether to play him, but rather “how much?” The more the better, of course, at least in terms of team chance creation.
It also means that we need to monitor the relationship of Coutinho and Firmino as the season progresses. Already, with little time together, their average minutes per chance when on the pitch are solid statistically. They’ve helped the Reds assert themselves above where Rodgers left the team and have given the fans some brilliant performances in the process. But they need to start clicking soon.
For Firmino specifically, it also means his work with the rest of the side must remain constant. The massive drop-off in chance creation when just Firmino is on the pitch is staggering, but it also tells us that there’s a disconnection between him and the other players. Some other partnerships have already started to blossom, like between Firmino and Adam Lallana as well as with young Jordan Ibe. Other critical cogs in the side, however, need to start churning smoothly with Firmino to determine his success at Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, and skipper Henderson immediately come to mind.
By being statistically in-and-around the average minutes per chance for the side over the course of the season, coupled with some moments of tremendous brilliance, the partnership of Coutinho and Firmino is exciting and promising. Going forward, Klopp should be looking to develop that relationship into one that creates havoc against opposing defenders.