Have Liverpool Replaced Coutinho Already?

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Since Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona on 6th January 2018, alarm bells were ringing throughout Anfield. He was our best player, and without him, Liverpool would stand no chance of qualifying for the top four or progressing through the Champions League, the pundits said. Many claims & allegations were thrown by the media, fanbase and pundits ranging from Liverpool’s decline as a top European power to calling for Klopp’s head. Fast forward two months, and there is a consensus among fans and pundits alike that Liverpool can comfortably secure a top-four finish and could progress deep in the Champions League. There is no talk about Coutinho anymore. He seems a distant memory all of a sudden. The reds’ amazing performances since Coutinho’s departure has led us to ask how has Klopp replaced him in the team and more importantly, does Klopp need to replace him with a direct replacement in the summer?

Liverpool against the big teams with & without Coutinho:

We compare Liverpool’s stats against the ‘big’ teams they have faced this season. This includes Liverpool’s five rivals in the top 6 of the Premier League and also Sevilla, Porto & Spartak Moscow in the UCL.

Liverpool managed 8 points from 6 games when Coutinho featured before his departure in January. The win against Arsenal & defeat to City at the Etihad are not included because Coutinho didn’t feature in them. In the three big matches since Coutinho’s departure(City, Spurs & Porto), Liverpool have two wins & 1 draw.

A quick look at the stats will show you a clear trend. Liverpool have averaged less possession against teams of similar pedigree in Coutinho’s absence.However, Liverpool have clocked greater tackles, interceptions and clearances. This statistic kind of states the obvious. When going toe to toe against such teams, Liverpool had better control when they had the ball, largely thanks to Coutinho’s presence in midfield. To ensure, Liverpool can make most of the attacks when Coutinho had the ball, the front 2/3 (depending on whether Mane starts) also seem to be a little higher up the pitch, thereby reducing their defensive contributions. Hence, Liverpool’s defence and midfield were more exposed and vulnerable leading to conceding more goals.

In the games against City & Spurs since Coutinho’s departure, Liverpool had a lot less of the ball. The entire front 3 and midfield pressed high making it difficult for their opponents to play through the back. The pressing game was executed to perfection against City till 70 minutes and in the entire first half against Spurs. While gegenpressing has always been Klopp’s mantra, it hasn’t been implemented this effectively in any of the big games this season.

When Liverpool have faced more defensive minded opponents like Chelsea & Man United, they have struggled to create much. Coutinho was man marked out of the game, and he struggled to contribute in both games. At Old Trafford, in the 2-0 loss, it was a defensive masterclass by Mourinho that stifled Liverpool.

This leaves us with an interesting question. How would Liverpool have fared in next weekend’s showdown at Old Trafford had Coutinho still been at Liverpool? It is very probable that Jose Mourinho would employ the same tactic that he used against Eden Hazard & Antonio Conte last season. Ander Herrera man-marked Hazard out of the game and when Chelsea lost the ball, they counter-attacked ruthlessly through Marcus Rashford. Nemanja Matic/Scott McTominay would probably have done the same to Coutinho, and there is a genuine chance that we would have ended up succumbing to another Mourinho masterclass.

Liverpool against the small teams since Coutinho’s departure:

While many will agree to the fact that Coutinho’s absence would pave the way for a more pragmatic midfield which would increase defensive solidity in the big games, they argued that Coutinho’s creativity would be sorely missed against lesser teams that prefer to sit back and soak up the pressure.

This is again an exciting thought to ponder. Liverpool’s performances against the lesser teams this season have depended directly on Coutinho’s form. When Coutinho is on song, he can break open defences at will and sitting deep wouldn’t help the opponent’s case. This fact was proven time and again. Liverpool’s impressive away victories against Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion and at home against Southampton & Swansea are a testament to this fact. However, one shouldn’t forget the fact that Liverpool were also held to unspectacular draws against Newcastle (away), Burnley (home), West Brom (home), Spartak (away). Coutinho featured for 90 mins in the majority of these games, and he wasn’t at his best here. On an off day, we would have a predictable ball hogger where nothing would go right, and all of Liverpool’s attacks would go waste. Does this imply that the form of one playmaker would dictate the results of a team like Liverpool aiming for the title?

Winning teams always have a spine of core players. They don’t depend on any one player. Last season, the spine of David Luiz, Diego Costa, Kante & Hazard won the title for Chelsea. A spine of Aguero, Yaya Toure, Kompany & David Silva won the PL titles for Manchester City. When United last won the tile in 2012, a spine of van Persie, Rooney & Carrick were instrumental to their success. Winning teams can depend on more than one player to bail them out of trouble, and that is exactly what Klopp has cultivated at Liverpool since Coutinho’s departure.

Liverpool have exhibited more control of the ball, better ability to recover in midfield and yes, as Klopp himself said it, a bit of unpredictability. A counter-attack could start because of a brilliant cross-field pass from van Dijk or an exceptional ball recovery by Firmino, or a Chamberlain run through the midfield or Salah’s dribbling on the edge of the area or a header from a set piece.

Coutinho’s creativity, technical ability and playmaking skills have been replaced with increased defensive pragmatism, increased recovery of the ball in dangerous areas and a new found aerial threat from set pieces. A closer look will show that these attributes are all cornerstones of any top class box to box midfielder. Arturo Vidal, Radja Nainggolan and Aaron Ramsey(although questionable) and the Yaya Toure of yesteryears are all great box to box midfielders who are very good at these. Chamberlain and Milner have demonstrated all these box to box midfield qualities impressively in the wake of Coutinho’s departure. And mind you, Lallana hasn’t even been integrated to the starting XI yet.

So, would Liverpool gain consistency in their attack through the contributions of a more box to box midfielder instead of a ball-hogging creative playmaker is the big question to ask? While not obvious to many a fan, it was obvious to Klopp, and that is probably the reason he let Coutinho leave.

Already in the five matches against the “lesser” opposition, Liverpool have averaged more possession and more tackles while conceding a lesser number of shots and goals. This points to two things. Increased patience & increased number of recoveries. Against Newcastle & Huddersfield, Liverpool were very patient till their opening goal. True, they didn’t muster too many shots on target, but they dug in, waiting for any mistakes from the opposition. Against Newcastle, the first goal came because of a recovery high up the pitch and Chamberlain’s driving run. The goal had Klopp’s system written all over it. That was a perfect example of Klopp’s system in full throttle.

Now, enter Naby Keita. He is very adept at driving the ball through midfield. His dribbling skills are probably second only to Salah. Currently, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the only Liverpool player who can drive forward from midfield and Liverpool have already benefited from these runs as evidenced by his assists against West Ham & Newcastle. His consistency has been the only major obstacle to his progress. Naby Keita could provide that on a more consistent basis.

To sum up, a midfield trio of Keita, Chamberlain and Can/Henderson next season could be quietly efficient and more consistent. Maybe we won’t see those trademark free kicks or the long rangers. But if it means giving those up for an increased number of routine 1-0 & 2-0 wins, I would take that. If it means, giving up the worldies to bail us out because we won’t be in trouble in the first place, I would trade Coutinho for this new look midfield.

So do Liverpool need to spend the cash at all?

While the arguments put forth here do justify Coutinho’s departure, it doesn’t mean Liverpool don’t need to spend the cash on an attacking midfielder at all. Liverpool don’t have any player who can provide competition/adequate cover to the front three of Mane, Firmino & Salah. An injury to any one of the trio would be disastrous. What one forgets is that Coutinho started the majority of his matches this season as a left winger and Mane was benched in most of those games. Mane & Coutinho were regularly rotated on the left wing. Liverpool do need someone who can play on the wings in the absence of either Mane or Salah.

Also one needs to remember that Klopp has virtually never had a full-strength squad to call upon. Injuries are common because of how demanding his system is on the players. So the preferred choice would be to have a player who can play on the wings and also temporarily play the most attack-minded player in the midfield 3. A variety of names including the likes of Thomas Lemar, Suso, Piotr Zielinski and even Jack Wilshere have been mentioned in the press. But if there is one thing I am confident about Klopp, it is his transfers. He hasn’t got a foot wrong in his transfers till now. Considering current form, Joel Matip looks to be the “worst” piece of business Klopp has had. Considering he was obtained for free, that isn’t quite bad. So, let’s just leave it to Klopp to figure it out because he has got it spot on time and again.

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  1. I watched skirts play against Bayern Munich the other night. He was MOM, scoring once and delivering a simple elegant through ball to Werner for the second goal. He has oceans of talent, great ball control, faster than Cohtinho, elusive, runs with his head up looking for a telling pass, combative, and willing to surge into the box. He will take time to adjust: Red Bull plays languidly. No group pressing and little tracking back. Keita will need to adapt to the Reds’ relentless tempo.


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