A Monday night in February 2013. At Anfield it’s a familiar feeling for Reds fans as the team struggle against an opponent they are expected to beat. On this occasion it’s a West Brom side managed by Steve Clarke.
After a lot of huffing and puffing the home team finally look set to make the breakthrough in the 77th minute when Steven Gerrard steps up to take a penalty. Instead, his spot-kick is pushed away by Ben Foster.
The deflated look on Gerrard’s face is reflected by the feeling in the stands. During the remaining 13 minutes West Brom score twice through Gareth McAuley and Romelu Lukaku to take the points. It’s another forgettable evening for supporters of the Reds. Afterwards the topic of conversation in a pub near the ground turns to the night’s debutant.
With a dozen minutes remaining a Brazilian youngster by the name of Philippe Coutinho had come on for the consistently ineffective Stewart Downing. Aged 20, the new arrival from Inter Milan looked like he had just entered his teens. A boy in a man’s game; his chances of competing and eventually thriving in the Premier League seemed slim at best.
Now, three years on Coutinho has undoubtedly become Liverpool’s most important player. His recent goal in a 1-1 draw against Spurs took him to double figures in a season for the first time since arriving in England.
It’s not just the amount he’s scoring either, it’s the quality of the goals, as demonstrated by his strike from the edge of the box against Borussia Dortmund last week.
Ranging from powerful long distance shots that are still a surprise to see coming from somebody of his stature to clever finishes that are capable of leaving a goalkeeper of the quality of David de Gea bamboozled; Coutinho has a variety of impressive ways to find the net, and at vital times in important fixtures.
Ten of those eleven goals this campaign have come since Jurgen Klopp arrived on Merseyside. Clearly, the German manager is getting the best from his number 10 and might even build a team around him. The player seems to appreciate that fact, judging by his comments in February:
“Our team is playing a high-pressing game and I am enjoying it,” he explained to World Soccer.
“With this style there is more freedom when we have the ball. We still have responsibilities within the team, but the manager is asking us to play our game more naturally and it is enabling us to express ourselves.
“Klopp has put his ideas forward and they are helping to make me an even better player.”
Amongst his past and present teammates Coutinho’s rise to prominence is no surprise. Daniel Sturridge regularly refers to him as ‘the magician’ and Adam Lallana described his aforementioned goal against Man United in Europe as ‘Messi-like’. Perhaps it is the words of Luis Suarez, though, which give us an idea of just how good those who play the game believe Coutinho could be. Steven Gerrard recalls in his autobiography that when Suarez was saying goodbye before departing for Barcelona the forward told the Scouser to ‘make sure you look after him [Coutinho]’.
The Uruguayan clearly feels his fellow South American can get even better in the years ahead if he is guided in the right way. For Liverpool the only downside to that occurring is it would inevitably attract suitors, particularly from La Liga.
This was something the former Liverpool skipper acknowledged, saying (via the Daily Mail):
“I know that the Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, will come looking for Philippe in a few more seasons, just like they did with Luis. And that’s when it will get tricky for Liverpool because the lure to go to one of those two clubs is so strong for any South American.”
Since arriving at Anfield in 2013 ‘little Phil’ has seen Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina, Suarez, Gerrard and Raheem Sterling all depart for a variety of reasons. Such a drain of talent obviously has a long-term effect on the team’s ability to compete.
That’s why no matter how much money is offered – and it would obviously take a massive amount of cash to prise him away – Coutinho must be kept this summer. While there will inevitably be hundreds of names linked with the Reds in the coming months, from Mario Gotze to Mahmoud Dahoud, retaining his services could be the most important bit of business the club conducts.
Johnny Hynes, Pundit Arena