Again, Liverpool find themselves selling off their best player for a big fee and the chance for the manager to reinvest in the squad. Rodgers had this opportunity last summer and it gave varied results (and that’s a bit kind). Now Sterling is off to Manchester, there is a gaping hole in the side that is going to put a considerable amount of pressure on someone. The likelihood is that this weight of pressure will fall on the shoulders of a Brazilian, most likely Philippe Coutinho.
Coutinho is yet to find any consistency in his career and has built quite a reputation for himself out of what many see as pretty up and down seasons. Last year he performed very well in patches but his style of play can often flatter to deceive. Coutinho’s game is almost perfect for the world of the vine and 6 seconds showing a couple of step-overs and a slick flick (see an example below).
Brazilians are known for their expansive play and flair, but Coutinho needs to be produce more if he is going to become the player that so many already think he is. He may only be 23, but 5 goals and 5 assists in nearly 40 games for Liverpool last season is insufficient for a player in his role. That level of production is not something Liverpool should be looking to build around, but it is the sign of a player who is great on a highlight reel but does not produce enough when it matters; perhaps that is a bit unfair.
Some brilliant strikes last season saw plaudits for Coutinho that he deserved, but Rodgers should not see him as a guaranteed starter in this coming campaign. Inevitably, it will depend on the shape opted for but Emre Can and Jordan Henderson should both be certain of their starting positions and Coutinho then becomes under threat. Neither Can or Henderson are best when playing as a defensive midfielder (which is an addition desperately needed) so their inclusion would lend itself to a 4-3-3. A 4-3-3 will probably see Markovic and Firmino wide and leaves no room for Coutinho. Emre Can and Firmino are far more crucial to have in the side than Coutinho for the coming campaign, too.
A second option could be a diamond midfield with Coutinho playing behind a Firmino-Sturridge front two. This would probably be the ideal way to fit Coutinho into the side along with Henderson, Can and Firmino, but will ask a lot of Can and Henderson to provide some width in the midfield. The best diamond might be Ings alongside Sturridge and Firmino in at 10.
This is not to mention the role that Adam Lallana could potentially play and is, arguably, a better creator than Coutinho. Lallana was not given adequate opportunity last season and has yet to settle at Liverpool, but the ex-Saint certainly has the ability to a star in Liverpool’s midfield and excels at receiving the ball in between the lines.
As ever, Rodgers is likely to experiment with a number of tactics and will hopefully find his best combination of players during pre-season. The options are there to fit in his plethora of attacking options and he may even attempt a 3-4-2-1 in an attempt to combine all the options in one.
Coutinho, because of the presence of Can and Henderson, needs to play as a 10 if he is to be worth his place in the side. Adam Lallana equally deserves an opportunity in the side and will, if he finds form, be a strong competitor for Coutinho’s position in the side. Meanwhile, Firmino will hope to hit the ground running and Lazar Markovic begun to show flashes of why Liverpool invested so heavily in him.
Rodgers should not be drawn into building the side around Coutinho and consider all his options. A 4-2-3-1 will certainly be tried at one point or another and that could be extremely flexible because of Firmino’s ability to play as the striker himself, but both Firmino and Markovic have higher ceilings than Coutinho and Rodgers must be careful not to put their development at risk for Philippe.
Firmino demonstrated at Hoffenheim that he can provide more that Coutinho and the attack should be focused on getting the best out of him.
This season could be tricky with Sturridge’s injuries and the loss of Sterling, so whilst pressure will be on Coutinho he needs to up his game significantly to be considered as first choice with all the midfield options Liverpool have.