Fresh from signing a new five-year contract, Philippe Coutinho’s injury time winner for Liverpool at Bolton felt big. It felt like a defining moment in his Liverpool career.
It may seem foolish to say – a rare goal to knock the second tier’s 14th-best side out of the FA Cup at the second attempt is rather less significant than, say, the odd goal in five to beat Manchester City in a top of the table clash in April. However, Coutinho’s influence on Brendan Rodgers’ side has been massive since the Northern Irishman switched to a 3-4-2-1 system at the start of December.
Until then, the Brazilian appeared to be one of the most bizarre conundrums in football. When is a number ten not a number ten? When Rodgers introduced a midfield diamond last season away to Southampton, it was Coutinho who was tasked with the creative responsibility at the shape’s tip. After roughly an hour of ineffectiveness in what would appear his most natural position, with two centre forwards sprinting onto his through passes, he was replaced by Raheem Sterling who scored immediately and essentially established himself as one of the brightest talents in Europe from then on in that same position.
Dislodged as number ten, Coutinho was employed as one of the two shuttlers either side of Steven Gerrard for much of the rest of the season, mirroring the role he excelled in in a midfield three earlier in the year against Everton and Arsenal. Deployed deeper, he looked a different player – he had more space to operate in, provided the ability to take players out of the game in the centre of the park and displayed remarkable tenacity and discipline when pressing, an area of his game rarely seen before his move deeper.
Prior to that, the ex-Internazionale man had shown his best form towards the end of 2012/13, particularly when Luis Suárez was suspended. Playing as one of a three in a 4-2-3-1, he linked up superbly with Daniel Sturridge in the 6-0 win at Newcastle to give fans a glimpse of life without Suárez.
So, with the Uruguayan departing for Barcelona last summer, Rodgers can be forgiven for turning to that combination again at the start of this term. Despite playing as part of an extremely fluid front three (essentially sharing the burden of playing wide right with Jordan Henderson) in Liverpool’s hugely exciting 4-0 demolition of Borussia Dortmund prior to the beginning of the season, in the first game of the league season at home to Southampton, the formation was very much a flat 4-2-3-1 with Coutinho in the hole. Stifled effectively by Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama, the Brazilian barely got a kick as the Reds scraped a 2-1 win. At the Etihad next time out, he lined up on the flank and was replaced after another poor display.
The first half of Liverpool’s 2014/15 was dire in almost all aspects and their diminutive playmaker struggled as a result, rarely playing consecutive games and only scoring in the 3-2 win at QPR in October.
It didn’t help that Rodgers seemed intent on playing 4-2-3-1 no matter what – while Coutinho seems a natural fit for the central attacker in the trio behind the forward, it never played out that way on the pitch. Even when he began to come back into form in November, his partnership with Rickie Lambert, then regularly leading the line for a purposely stodgy-but-hard-to-beat Liverpool, showed zero signs of flourishing; a stat at one point after the 0-0 draw at Anfield against Sunderland revealed that the number ten only passed to the number nine at one point throughout the entire 90 minutes.
Playing alongside Adam Lallana or Steven Gerrard, however, in the odd dual-number ten formation Liverpool have played for the last two months has seen Coutinho perform more consistently than ever before in his relatively short career. Still only 22, his performances have been a solid seven plus out of ten for around fifteen games now and slowly, his numbers are starting to improve.
Always bright and busy in the middle third, the major criticism levelled at the Brazilian has been his game-winning contributions, especially regarding his finishing. In a season where Christian Eriksen, an intelligent, technically proficient footballer but not one blessed with the natural magic of Coutinho, has almost single-handedly lifted Tottenham to a position above Liverpool in the table by scoring a succession of near-identical late winners from the edge of the penalty area, one has to wonder how many more points Rodgers’ team would have if their star attacker had Eriksen’s proficiency from twenty yards.
His input in almost every other facet of a football match has been outstanding. He is Liverpool’s greatest outball – not in the six-foot-something lump sense that you might think an outball should be, but in the sense that he’s always happy to receive the ball to feet, even when surrounded by opposition players.
Numerous times in recent games he has had passes fizzed into his feet by Mamadou Sakho from the left of the defence and taken his marker out of the game with a seemingly impossible one touch turn. His link-up play with Sterling has been outstanding and with Sturridge back in the frame, one would expect that the partnership which prospered so fruitfully in the 2012/13 run-in will prove devastating once again.
Paired with another player between the lines and a pacey outlet ahead of him, Coutinho has shone with far more space available to him than there ever was when playing behind Lambert or Mario Balotelli in the 4-2-3-1. If only he could shoot.
But, with two assists at the weekend against West Ham, a new contract, and last night’s brilliant winner, perhaps his glaring flaw will soon cease to exist. Then, signing him to a five-year deal would appear very good business indeed.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.