The missing piece of the jigsaw at Liverpool?
Liverpool look likely to conclude a deal for Inter Milan midfielder-cum-winger Philippe Coutinho shortly, but given the club’s attacking options already and the form of those out wide and through the middle this past month, is this move simply a needless indulgence or does it represent an altogether more logical, long-term approach?
The 20-year-old looks set to become manager Brendan Rodgers’ second signing of the January transfer window after managing director Ian Ayre jetted out to Milan to conclude a deal late last night. With Inter holding out for something approaching £10m after they rejected Liverpool’s initial offer of £6.8m on Friday, a compromise is likely to be reached at around the £8m mark for a player once labelled ‘the future of Inter’ by club president Massimo Moratti.
The first thing that immediately stands out regarding the playmaker is his versatility; blessed with a superb touch and ability to run with the ball at pace, he has drawn comparisons with Kaka back in his homeland and Inter were persuaded to sign him up from Vasco de Gama at the age of 16 even though he wasn’t eligible to turn out for the first-team for another two years. Converted from a striker to an attacking midfielder, it’s precisely this sort of shift that has seen him retain his goal threat from deep or out on the flanks to the tune of three goals in 11 appearances across all competitions this season for his parent club after a successful spell with Espanyol in Spain last season.
His movement, technical skill and quick feet make him a nightmare for opponents to mark and he seems to fit the fluid approach play that Rodgers is looking for with his earlier acquisitions of Fabio Borini and Sturridge, but quite where this leaves the club’s pursuit of Blackpool winger Tom Ince remains to be seen. The question on everyone’s lips is, though, where does he fit in at Anfield?
With the club ending the loan spell of Nuri Sahin six months early and allowing him to move back to former club Borussia Dortmund from Real Madrid, you sensed that Rodgers had a few irons in the fire with regards to reinforcement, with many, myself included, taking this as proof that Wesley Sneijder was about to swoop into Anfield via the Babelcopter in an unlikely move. Of course, the 50% tax bracket, soon to be downgraded in April to 45%, clearly put paid to any hopes the club had of reaching an amicable financial agreement and he choose the riches of Galatasaray instead, the footballing equivalent of Manchester for Eastenders characters, where footballers careers go to shrivel and die.
With Steven Gerrard flourishing in a deeper-lying role of late, Jordan Henderson has reinvented himself as an attacking midfielder of real worth these past few weeks with a fabulous display including a well-taken goal during the 5-0 home win against Norwich at the weekend.
Nevertheless, getting his head around which trio to start with in midfield has proven a constant source of problems for Rodgers time on Merseyside so far, despite the depth and talent left in reserve. Various combinations have been tried out, largely due to the two-month lay-off of Lucas Leiva back in September, which has had a knock-on effect on the starting position of summer signing Joe Allen and his subsequent dip on form.
With the Welshman benched for the foreseeable future, aside from a deeply disappointing display against Manchester United in the derby game at Old Trafford this month, Gerrard has taken up the mantle superbly just in front of his back four, completing 107 passes against Norwich, the most any Liverpool player has managed in a single game since Xabi Alonso did against Bolton back in December 2008.
When you throw into the mix his eight assists (just one short of his season-best of nine back in 2008/9) this season and a return of five goals and it seems as if the 32-year-old skipper is adjusting extremely well to his more reserved role in the side despite some initial teething problems earlier on in the campaign.
The system that Rodgers prefers is often referred to as a simple 4-3-3 formation but in practice the midfield trio are staggered one in front of the other, with Gerrard making the middle pivot role between the defensive shield and attacking midfielder his own. This grants him more time and space to pick a pass and against Norwich he attempted a massive 23 long passes, impressively completing 20 of them. He also averages 8.2 successful long balls per game now this season – the highest of any outfield player in the Premier League.
Back to Coutinho, though, and Gerrard’s success and the potential of Henderson in a more central attacking role in recent months, coupled with the emergence of Jonjo Shelvey this campaign, particularly in Europe, should see the Brazilian shifted out wide for the time being, most likely to the right, with Suarez drifting off the left with the aim of linking up with the fixed reference point of Sturridge through the middle.
Coutinho had this to say of his positional future in the game upon his introductory press conference when he signed for Inter: “My position? I’m a midfielder. I like to play behind the strikers and attack, so yes, I’m a bit like Wes Sneijder. My role models? Robinho and Kaka. The comparisons with Pato? It’s flattering, but we’re two different players. He’s a striker, I’m more a midfielder.”
It’s his spell in Spain with Espanyol under the guidance of new Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino that bodes well, though, with the Argentine manager impressing upon the talented youngster that he needed to work hard off the ball and press high up in the opposition’s half to make the most of his undeniable skills, an approach which lends itself well to his ability to adjust quickly to Rodgers methods. There was even a sense that towards the end of his time in La Liga that the Barcelona-based side were coming to rely, possibly a little too much, on Coutinho to get them out of trouble, which speaks volumes of his ability to both handle pressure and a tense playing environment.
Eventually, Coutinho is viewed as a traditional No.10 and after adjusting to the physical demands of the top flight from a starting role out wide he will likely be shifted inside, with Raheem Sterling, Suso or possibly even Tom Ince to take his place on the flank. The form of Stewart Downing, return from injury of Borini and acquisition of Sturridge these past two weeks have handed Rodgers a plethora of attacking options that were lacking earlier on in the campaign, but the 20-year-old with the burgeoning reputation could just be the best piece of new to come to Anfield for quite some time in what is increasingly coming to represent one of the most balanced squads seen by the red half of Merseyside in years.