While it’s practically impossible to improve on the kind of perfection that this Liverpool team has embodied over the last two years…it’s always fun to fantasise, isn’t it?
So with that being said, here’s a Liverpool legend that might just fit into the greatest LFC side of our generation.
Amidst the lockdown lull, AI’s Sam McGuire put the following proposition to the AI Writer’s team, “Where would Liverpool legends from the Premier League era fit into this current team?”. Articles on Suarez and Carragher were snapped up immediately, shortly followed by Alonso and Torres. I opted for a more contentious individual, Philippe Coutinho.
I am acutely aware of the difficulties in establishing a legendary cohort of Liverpool players in the Premier League, and Philippe Coutinho did not leave a legacy like Steven Gerrard, nor did he produce a season of mesmerising magic like Luis Suarez. However, what he did achieve in the half-season prior to his acrimonious departure to Barcelona was not only breathtaking, but it was done amongst the same group of players that then went on to the Champions League final, and then to win it a season later.
In the 14 league games Coutinho played in 2017/18, he scored seven goals, made six assists and generated seven big chances. This in itself does not do a service to the incredible on-ball and in-possession contribution he made, evidenced by a 0.72 xGChain per 90. Again though, these figures do not demonstrate the impact he had when playing as a number 8 in the 4-3-3 system, where he had more time on the ball and was playing in a deeper, more refined role. This all0wed him to control the speed and direction of the game with masterful poise. Each moment the ball dropped deep was a moment of counterstrike opportunity, as opposition teams prepared to catch their breath, Coutinho would pick the ball up and either drive forward, exposing gaps and creating spaces, or creating opportunities for his teammates with his passing. His 4.8 dribbles per 90, at a 65 per cent success rate is testament to this, but you need only look at the manner in which Liverpool played during his time with Klopp to see the colossal impact he had on the style and speed of the team. Since his departure, Liverpool have settled into a more mature, refined side, which attacks as and when it needs, and no longer feels the need to blast teams into oblivion. But, god, I don’t half miss that heavy hitting, unrelenting and unstoppable goalscoring juggernaut – and Coutinho was central to that.
For a team which secured 108 points from a possible 110, it’s hard to make a case for any player coming into the starting XI, irrespective of talent, unless they could fit within a tactical system that has reduced England’s finest clubs to cannon fodder. Coutinho is one of the few players in the world, and of the select Liverpool Premier League legends who could genuinely lay claim to being able to play in a Klopp Liverpool side, meeting the demands, showing the tactical discipline, and displaying the requisite qualities to actual play, because, he’s actually already done it.
Nonetheless, having watched Liverpool over the last two and a half seasons, there is that small question of marginal improvements, something which always happens to revolve around the composition of Liverpool’s midfield three. Coutinho is certainly not a replacement no.6, but when looking at Liverpool’s no.8s, and how they have functioned across the season, there have been a number of opportunities where the team could just have done with a little extra creativity from deep, a little extra adventurousness, a bit of risk-taking, and dare I say it, a bit of magic. When you have the best-oiled machine in the world, it’s not about replacing a part with another more functional component, it’s about refining, innovating and identifying what else is possible.
A player like Coutinho, for all his flaws, is someone who captures the imagination, who adds a unique quality that is unmatched, and, crucially, is impossible for opposition teams to prepare for. A player with his specific skill set is the only thing this side is lacking. It has the robustness of the defence, the tenacity of the midfield, and the ruthless, razor-sharp front-line, all of which is bound by a commonality of excellence, but whilst the team is capable of magic moments, wouldn’t it be perfect to have a genuine, Brazilian magician, conducting and orchestrating a tapestry of samba artwork?
The measures that the club and the manager took, to try and keep hold of Coutinho only underscore this. I’m sure, had he not left, he would not only be one of the first names on the teamsheet, but performing on a level matched only by Kevin De Bruyne, because that was precisely what he was doing for the season and a half prior to his departure.
Magic is not easy to come by in football. There are plenty of players who show flickers of magic. There are lots of pretenders too. Then there are the genuinely magic players. Far too often though, they lack the tactical or psychological discipline to sustain and develop their abilities to the fullest. We all know just how good Coutinho is. At his best, he was the best player in the Brazil team, and quite comfortably the best goal-scoring midfielder in the world, and that’s without considering the quality of his set-pieces, and most importantly the effect he has on the players around him. His performances elevated the whole pace, zest and vibe of the players around him. Purposeful, aggressive and utterly gorgeous.
The question of whether a player like Coutinho should come back after the nature of his departure is an entirely different question to the one posed in the title of this article and, admittedly, a reasonable one. But if you allow yourself to indulge yourself a bit, it’s very easy to see how Coutinho would fit into this side in pure footballing terms, and genuinely terrifying to imagine this team taking one step closer to what would surely be unrivalled, unstoppable domination.