Philippe Coutinho's positional dilemma thwarts growth at Anfield

Posted Sep 11, 2015 by Tyrrell Meertins
Liverpool’s scoreless draw against Arsenal was undoubtedly Brendan Rodgers’ side’s best performance of the season thus far, yet it equally drew a few critical conclusions about the squad at his disposal.
Courtesy Dean Jones / Flickr
Prior to Liverpool’s most recent home loss against West Ham, the Reds exceeded expectations to start to the new Premier League campaign claiming seven points from a possible nine, with a fairly new assembled XI. Of their opening three games, a trip to the Emirates appeared to be a viable environment to drop points, but Rodgers’ pragmatism proved crucial.
Although Christian Benteke improved tremendously upfront, there were additional key factors related to Liverpool’s success. James Milner and Lucas Leiva thrived in the home side’s 4-3-2-1 as the former was free to operate in a preferred box-to-box role, while the latter provided the necessary protection that the Reds back-four lacked at Stoke, and specifically Bournemouth.
The result, in general, epitomized Liverpool under Rodgers. Apart from a few disappointing results towards the conclusion of last season, the Reds defeated inferior opposition, yet competed – most of the time – but lost to those within the top four.
On the day, Rodgers’ tactical rejig suited the Liverpool manager’s pragmatism, enabling Philippe Coutinho to flourish in transition. But Rodgers’ attempt to build on his success was short-lived, as Liverpool were lethargic in their home loss to West Ham.
This was another poor Liverpool performance at Anfield, lacking inspiration and creativity, but to make matters worse, Coutinho was dismissed minutes into the second half, ruling the Brazilian unavailable for this weekend’s monumental clash against Manchester United. Frankly, it feels as if there’s been no gradual improvement in Coutinho’s development since the Brazilian arrived from Inter Milan a few years ago, despite arguably holding the title as the club’s best player.
This equally highlights the drastic drop off in the club’s top performers, and where the Reds currently stand in comparison to previous years. Subsequent to Gerrard’s peak form midway through the last decade, Reds supporters welcomed Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez – two men who eclipsed world-class levels at during their time at Anfield.
Torres served as a strong centre-forward that relied on his speed to run behind the defence, enjoying his best moments with Gerrard closest to him. Suarez, however, is an excellent all-rounder, with tireless work rate, combined with the skill to easily evade challenges. Both world-class players were sold for excessive fees, leaving the club desperate to develop a player capable of replicating those levels.
Nevertheless, Coutinho is transforming into a cult hero at Anfield, and his overall fan base is growing with stature with every passing week. Brazilian players are often adored for their dazzling trickery, highlight reel goals, and breathtaking creativity, but the current generation has strayed away from their cultural cliché.
Similarly, Coutinho fits this mold – despite the current overzealous accolades for the Brazilian attacker, he remains a peculiar player that consistently fails to consistently perform at the highest level.
More so, Coutinho’s operated in two distinct roles in Liverpool’s away matches this season. The Brazilian’s weekly performances are significant considering he’s one of the few creative options in Rodgers’ current side, but one may argue that Coutinho isn’t at his supreme best as a no.10
Perhaps many may classify the Liverpool attacker as a legitimate play-maker, but the more you watch Coutinho, the more you realize he’s the polar-opposite. Oddly, the most bizarre theme associated with the Brazilian is that he rarely plays well – it leaves one to question whether he truly understands his role.
As Liverpool’s sole notable creator, Coutinho’s role is to link midfield and attack, yet when you observe the Brazilian’s productivity, apart from dribbling – the 23-year-old averaged the league’s fifth best dribbles per game (3.1) last season – it’s difficult to identify an area that he truly excels in. On the other hand, Coutinho’s 1.7 key passes per game is slightly low in comparison to the likes of Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, or Mesut Ozil, who all averaged more than 2.8 per game.
Those two statistics, mainly the latter, summarize Coutinho’s current issue. The Brazilian seems unable to successfully complete incisive passes in tight areas, which partially explains Liverpool’s difficulty breaking down compact, organized defences. Liverpool’s opening match at Stoke City was in ideal example of a typical Coutinho performance.
The Brazilian enjoyed his best moments when he dropped into midfield to receive the ball, subsequently charging forward into the final third. Yet, the incomplete passes that followed thwarted his impact in a truly underwhelming performance, but a stunning match-winning goal in the latter stages ensured Coutinho wrongly received plaudits.
Meanwhile, despite Bournemouth providing Coutinho ample space in their half, the Brazilian was equally ineffective. Liverpool, on the night, relied on goal that appeared off-side via replay, and were constantly exposed on the counter-attack. Coutinho’s inability to exploit space between the lines combined with his poor passing in tight spaces prevents the Brazilian from dominating a match like Silva has all season, or Ozil’s performance at Crystal Palace.
To no surprise, Coutinho’s best performance of the season was at the Emirates, where Rodgers move to a 4-3-2-1 with the Brazilian and his compatriot Roberto Firmino operating as floaters behind Benteke. Despite hitting the post and crossbar in the opening half – illustrating his goal-threat in the final third – Coutinho intercepted passes, played a significant role in Liverpool’s pressing, and ignited quick counters in transition.
Ultimately, Coutinho’s performance at the Emirates wasn’t coincidental, as he’s thrived in a deeper role in a counter-attacking system, opposed to a creative lynch-pin in the final third.
"It is just about consistency. We have started to see that in his game," stated Rodgers following Coutinho’s initial national team snub. "He is also the type of player whose numbers will be important: it is about creating and scoring goals - that is the level he is working to get to.
"You saw last week [at Stoke] towards the end of the game he has that magic which can win you a game out of nothing and we have seen over time here how he has adjusted to life at this level.”
Rodgers’ point on consistency is correct, but perhaps that’s an issue Coutinho has no bearing over. For both club and country, Coutinho is consistently poor in an advanced midfield role – he can’t get into the starting XI for the latter due to superior teammates – and though the former lacks natural creativity within the squad, Rodgers’ reluctance to maximize the Brazilian’s strengths is bizarre.
The signing of James Milner prevents Coutinho from dropping into a midfield trio – unless the new signing or captain Jordan Henderson is unavailable – which is a shame considering the Brazilian’s played his best games for Liverpool in this role. In Liverpool’s failed title challenge two years ago, convincing results against Everton, Manchester City and Arsenal involved the Reds’ sitting deep and quickly breaking on the counter with Coutinho receiving space to play through balls from deeper positions, along with his willingness to be combative in central areas.
Ideally, a deeper role enables Coutinho to carry out the two tasks he currently excels at – through-balls from deep positions, and dribbling past defenders. Considering the lack of talented options at Anfield, Coutinho’s moments of magic will suffice, and likely receive plaudits, but being thrown into a no.10 role may result in further stagnation.
Coutinho doesn’t possess the spatial awareness or incisive passing to thrive in an advanced position, and therefore, won’t reach his full potential until he develops the required traits or permanently moves into a deeper midfield role.