With their star-studded performance against Stoke, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah were once again the men in the lights. Salah, in particular, has seen himself lauded after just about every Liverpool game, following a phenomenal November, in which he scored eight goals from six games. Mane meanwhile, has once again been reminding Liverpool fans that he is a key man for the side, with two assists against West Ham, a brilliant goalscoring performance against Sevilla and then, of course, his vital role in the Stoke win.
And in amongst all of this, Roberto Firmino has hit form too, with a two-goal performance against Sevilla and other excellent performances in various recent games, a run that he capped with two goals against Brighton. So where does this leave Liverpool’s other Brazilian superstar Phillipe Coutinho?
It’s easy to see why Coutinho has not necessarily been picking up the plaudits or the levels of reverence that the others have so far this season. Injuries (feigned or otherwise) have restricted him to eight league starts with just three Champions League starts to add to that. Also, factor in the fact that he’s playing in a “deeper role” and it’s easy to see why he’s not necessarily perceived to have made the impact of the others.
And then there’s the elephant in the room. Coutinho’s botched transfer attempt and feigned injury has wrecked his reputation amongst Liverpool fans, who are quite happy to be able to point at the shiny new thing that is Mo Salah, or for many the player of last season Sadio Mane and say: they’re more important to Liverpool, I like them more. Even Bobby Firmino with his shiny teeth and cheeky attitude is more likeable than Coutinho amongst many Liverpool fans at the moment.
None of this is of course to defend Coutinho, who in my opinion thoroughly deserves any hits to his reputation or likability. His behaviour in the summer was unacceptable and if Liverpool fans struggle to see him in the same light afterwards then they’re well entitled to do so.
And yet, despite that, Coutinho is once again having a storming season. In his eleven PL and UCL starts he has six goals and seven assists, with vital performances and goals in important games for Liverpool so far this season. Man of the match now in four league games against Newcastle, Leicester, Saints and now Brighton, Coutinho is really delivering the goods.
Phil’s underlying stats, as I’ve said elsewhere, are incredibly impressive, with the 4th highest key passes (2.9) and dribble stats (3.5) per game in the league and what will be exciting for LFC is that he has flourished in a number of positions.
Whilst a lot has been made of Coutinho dropping deeper into midfield, he’s still produced some excellent performances from the left wing, notably against Leicester and Maribor and recently has adopted a number of new roles under Klopp’s formation shifts. Recently he’s been playing as a 10 at times when Liverpool have had the ball, whilst potentially playing deeper off it.
Against Brighton, he produced a trademark Coutinho performance from an attacking midfield position in a 3-4-3. With Robertson offering width, Coutinho was free to play almost wherever he wanted and wreaked havoc. His free-kick capped his performance, but his corner taking was excellent and led to a goal; he had a shot headed into his own net by Dunk and his low, fizzing ball to find Firmino for the second goal was nothing less than exceptional.
What has become increasingly clear this season is what I have been crying out for months, Liverpool are no longer reliant on Coutinho’s magic. Firmino is increasingly delivering top performances and getting the goals to boost that side of his game and Mane has always been a vital player for the Reds, but the key improvement is Salah. And with Salah scoring goals for fun, Liverpool no longer need Coutinho to drag them out of a mess every other week.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Coutinho is still one of, if not the best player in this team. He still runs the show, and he is still best in an attacking position where he can influence the game. Whether or not he’s the top dog, whether or not he’s the best player or whether or not he’s the most important player Liverpool have at their disposal; these are all largely irrelevant questions.
One thing is clear: Phil Coutinho is an absolute gem. He’s a world-class player and right now he’s delivering at the top of his game. We’re lucky to have him, even if it’s only for one more season, and we should all appreciate him while he’s here. Even if we can’t quite forgive him.