The name opposition managers and players fear most when they line up against Liverpool is most likely Philippe Coutinho. Nicknamed ‘The Little Magician’ by Reds fans and lauded for his technical prowess, the Brazilian can do things with a football few others in the Premier League are capable of, whether that be unlocking defences with passes, bamboozling defenders with his quick feet or carrying the ball 20-30 yards at pace to build neat counter-attacks.
Alas, for a player so special, he raises quite a few problems. Liverpool fans probably won’t want to admit it, but the weak link in their forward line is Coutinho. By weak link I don’t mean that the 24-year-old is a poor player, it’s more that Jurgen Klopp’s current system cannot be executed to its maximum effect as long as the former Inter Milan man is part of the front three.
Alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Coutinho completes a triumvirate that both thrills and frustrates. This season alone the ‘SFC’ combination have helped to tear the likes of Arsenal (twice) apart and have contributed heavily to various other wins, but there remains a commonly-held feeling that another ingredient is needed up top to take this Liverpool team to the next level: a proven goalscorer.
Whether or not Klopp plans to sign a player described as an orthodox Number 9 remains to be seen, but with the German a big fan of Firmino as the central man in his fluid system, there’s every chance he will look to build around him rather than Coutinho. This is a valid approach given his qualities in terms of pressing and initiating attacks, but to play without a single focal point in terms of putting the ball in the net means that the goals need to be spread, and at the moment, Coutinho appears the odd man out.
A quick glance at the numbers shows that Coutinho is delivering to a lesser extent than Mane and Firmino. There are caveats, including his injury during the winter, but having contributed 22% (six) of the three’s 27 Premier League goals, it’s clear that he’s not keeping pace with his team-mates. His assists return of 36% is impressive, granted, but another falling point is that Coutinho has taken 70 shots (35% of the trio’s total), yet is the lowest scorer by some distance.
Essentially, Klopp needs his three main forwards to be bringing 15-20 goals to the table in the league alone to truly warrant not having a main striker. This may seem like a figure plucked out of the air, but with the leading scorer in each of the last five seasons having averaged just shy of 28 goals per season, the shortfall in terms of overall leader needs to be spread around.
Mane with twelve so far looks well on course to achieve that, while Firmino, who netted against Arsenal on Saturday to reach nine, is on course to break into this zone, or at least come very close, yet it’s tough to see Coutinho doing so. As it stands, the latter has a return of 0.3 goals per game, which extends out to three or four more over the remaining eleven matches of the league season, which sees his potential ceiling this term set at ten unless he gets a move on.
What does this mean for Coutinho, then? Well, the logical move appears to be dropping him deeper into the midfield. The 2012 signing played in midfield roles frequently during the first couple of seasons of his Liverpool career, shining as one of the two middle-men in a 4-4-2 diamond, while also functioning well as a No.8/No.10 hybrid under Brendan Rodgers. This would put him directly in competition with Adam Lallana now, who has emerged as arguably Liverpool’s key midfield player in terms of pressing and transitioning the play.
Swapping Coutinho in for Lallana seems the long-term answer to the problem, but there is the prospect of both playing ahead of a defensively-minded midfielder in matches against low-block defences, so long as one assumes a more defensive role – presumably the Englishman. It would be a bold call to ease the ex-Southampton man out after his recent commitment to a new contract at Anfield, but it might just be the only answer in the long run in terms of building a balanced and effective team. The Brazilian is probably the better player, so getting the most from him should be vital.
Coutinho himself would benefit hugely from having the burden of being looked-to for goals lifted. Given his creativity and eye for a pass, he’d be in a much better position to pick out runners ahead of him by virtue of increased options, while he would also benefit from a relative reduction of defensive attention, as it’s harder for opposing teams to double-up on him in a deeper, central role than it is when he’s on the wing, where cutting in onto his right foot is the player’s move of choice.
Until a change is made, keeping Coutinho in the front three may be a state of affairs that holds Klopp and his team back, with goals, as the old saying goes, winning games.