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Philippe Coutinho turned in an absolute masterclass on Sunday afternoon, scoring twice, assisting Daniel Sturridge for the opening goal, creating five other chances for his team-mates and generally wreaking havoc on the West Ham back-line. And he did so from a deeper position in central midfield, whereas generally all season Coutinho has played on the left hand side of Liverpool’s front three.
Naturally, his revelatory performance in that position has caused people to suggest that he should play there more often, and it comes in the same week that his own manager has been talking up Coutinho as a number eight, in the deeper midfield role, as his best position. So is this deeper role Coutinho’s best position, and is it one that we’ll see him dominating next season in the Premier League?
In terms of both questions, I feel that the answer to them is linked. I’ll come to the stats in a moment, but one point that I feel is important comes from a flippant quote by a pundit asked about whether the shift to Coutinho’s position contributed to his performance: “He’s a great player, he can play anywhere.”
Now I think that not even bothering to address whether or not Coutinho benefitted from a complete tactical overhaul and positional shift by Klopp in this game is a clear oversight, especially when trying to analyse a game where Coutinho was unquestionably Liverpool’s best player. But the underlying point is nevertheless a good one: Coutinho has been exceptional for large portions of the season and is simply a phenomenal player wherever he’s played.
And it’s a fair thing to point out: Coutinho has the attributes to succeed in that position. He’s an exceptional passer of the ball, both in terms of short sharp interplay and incisive through or long passes; his dribbling skills are excellent, allowing him to take on players; his range shooting is devastating, as he’s shown all season; and his running and pressing stats match those of his teammates and what would be expected of a Jürgen Klopp midfielder. These attributes ensure that Coutinho has been effective for Liverpool as an inside-forward (since he doesn’t really play as a straightforward winger) and as an attacking midfielder.
So if Coutinho is great in a variety of positions, how do you decide where his best one is? Well, partly it’s based on who else you have available. Liverpool have had Sadio Mane occupying the wide right role in a 4-3-3 all season, and with a variety of good midfield options, Coutinho has filled the left inside-forward role, mostly because that’s the position that most needed filling. Klopp and Coutinho have both previously claimed that it’s his favourite and best position. Now, Klopp has said he sees Coutinho as a central midfielder, and coincidentally, two days later, Klopp decides to play him there. Or, more likely, this is a case of Klopp talking up his best player wherever he feels he most requires Coutinho’s skills. With both Firmino and Mane out, Liverpool are very short on wide-forwards and inside-forwards, so switching to a diamond midfield makes sense, and playing Coutinho slightly deeper than Adam Lallana also makes sense, so Klopp did it.
The fact that Klopp is talking up Coutinho as a central playmaker is as much for who he’s bringing in as for Coutinho himself. Klopp is currently courting wingers (notably Brandt who is worried he won’t get enough game time at Liverpool), so by suggesting Coutinho will be lining up centrally next year, suddenly there’s a gaping space on Liverpool’s left wing for a world class winger to walk straight into our starting XI. Of course, that’s only part of the reason, but nevertheless, it implies that Coutinho certainly has a future in that deeper role for Liverpool, although it really depends on what formation Klopp sees as his default next season, if indeed he decides to have a default.
The underlying point I’m trying to make is twofold. One: it doesn’t really matter what Coutinho’s ‘best’ position is; he’s an absolutely awesome player wherever on the pitch you put him. Against West Ham he was unplayable from a deep midfield position, but he’s turned in a lot of excellent performances from the left too. Two: Coutinho’s versatility means that where he actually plays can change week on week without a detrimental effect on the side. Klopp’s side is going to have injuries and fitness concerns next season, so having Coutinho available for a variety of positions gives him flexibility. Moreover, Liverpool will face different types of opposition. There will be games where two holding midfielders are necessary, or games where Coutinho can’t quite impose himself in the middle of the park because of the type of opposition we’re playing. And then there will be games where he’s not as effective on the left. So Klopp can cater his position to the opposition.
Against West Ham, Coutinho was supremely effective for several reasons. First of all, it helped that West Ham were absolutely abysmal and had absolutely no quality in their midfield. Missing both Noble and Kouyate and playing two pretty average CMs in a 5-2-3 meant that Coutinho had more license to run riot centrally. Moreover, a lack of quality and pace from West Ham’s counter meant that Coutinho had to worry slightly less about defensive responsibilities, letting him off the leash a little. Another key factor was Daniel Sturridge, whose relationship with the Brazilian was critical for getting the best out of Coutinho, and creating space for him to operate in. There will be games where these factors are absent, or plainly, when the opposition is better.
But I still haven’t answered the question. What is Coutinho’s best position? Well looking at his stats, there is certainly a case to be made for playing him in central midfield. To some people the idea of playing him there is to release some undiscovered magic. He has played there twice before this season against Swansea and Man United back in October, when he was our best player week in week out.
The fact that Coutinho was already on a hot streak, coupled with the fact that we only have three games worth of stats to look at this season means that the numbers are hardly definitive, but worth a look anyway. Across the three games, Coutinho averaged 4 key passes, 6 of which were against West Ham, which is massive compared to his league average of 2.4 per 90 this season. He also struck 12 shots, which is slightly lower than his 4.25 average, with 5 of those 12 hitting the target. Again, this is skewed by 6 against West Ham. Dribbling wise, he’s managed 11 take-ons, just less than 4 a game, compared to his average of 2.7. Moreover, he makes 54 passes per 90, and across the three games at central midfield, has played 56, 56 and 63. So again, not significantly higher.
The only season where Coutinho has featured regularly for Liverpool as a central midfielder is the 13/14 season, where he picked up 7 assists from a central role. However, comparing his stats per game from that year with this one, we see that his key passes are almost identical (2.1 this year, 2.0 in 13/14), his shot tally is slightly lower (2.8 compared to 3.4) dribbling is slightly lower (1.8 compared to 2.1) and he only makes slightly more passes (44.8 compared to 43.1).
The two seasons are very different of course, and truthfully there is no good statistical measure as Coutinho hasn’t played regularly enough as a central midfielder and narrowing down stats for those specific games is difficult. But what we can see seems to suggest that Coutinho’s numbers will be similar. We can assume that playing slightly deeper will ensure that he exerts more general influence on the game, but whether or not it will negate his end product remains to be seen. Games like the win over West Ham would suggest not.
Overall, I am surprisingly apathetic to where Coutinho plays in this Liverpool side. I believe that playing him in a midfield trident would be supremely effective. It would plausibly improve his consistency, but given that he already has the best assist to minute ratio and close to the best goal to minute ratio of all of our regular attacking midfielders, I would argue consistency is already not really an issue. Even for all the talk of how poor he was in January and February, he only started four games before returning to some form and scoring against Leicester, albeit he didn’t quite hit top form until the start of April.
Essentially, I think Coutinho would flourish in a number of positions for this Liverpool side, and I want to see him playing wherever he can make the most impact. If that’s on the left because we have no other natural inside-forwards available out there, awesome. If that means he drops deeper into midfield and dictates play, also awesome, he’s fantastic there too.
Do I see Coutinho’s long term future as a number eight? Maybe, it’s entirely plausible, but it depends entirely on who Klopp signs in the summer, what his default formation is next season, what our injury situation looks like, and indeed, whether or not Klopp opts to experiment. But to me at least, it doesn’t matter. Because, after all. Coutinho is a great player. He can play anywhere.