It may be too early in the campaign to make many predictions about the nine months ahead, but Philippe Coutinho’s winning strike against Stoke on Sunday guaranteed one thing – an appearance on Liverpool’s end of season DVD.
The Brazilian’s wonderful hit lit up a desperately drab encounter at the Britannia and ensured that the Reds’ season got off to the start their performance barely deserved.
And the uncomfortable truth for Liverpool fans and Brendan Rodgers is that their splash of Brazilian magic may have masked some genuinely concerning issues, namely a particularly disjointed midfield, with several players seemingly unsure of their roles.
And while there are more questions than answers throughout the starting XI, the fact remains: we need to talk about Philippe.
Coutinho is unquestionably a great technician, possessing wonderful feet, an eye for goal and a penchant for producing the unexpected. But while he’ll continue to silence any bubbling murmurs of dissent with a winning goal every now and then, Liverpool’s rivals won’t be overly worried. Wonder strikes may win you the Player of the Season award, but they don’t always win the league.
For what Manuel Pellegrini, Louis van Gaal, Arsene Wenger and in particular Jose Mourinho know, is that Coutinho represents the highlights reel, when what Liverpool need is a feature-length movie.
Tenuous metaphors aside, Liverpool’s system on Sunday hinted at a few key flaws, many of them tied in to accommodating their most creative player.
Jordan Henderson, one of the country’s most natural box-to-box midfielders, was restricted to a holding role, allowing James Milner the chance to play slightly more advanced, though still too deep to make the most of his own strengths. Instead the attacking midfield roles were to be filled by Jordan Ibe, who did well wide right, and Adam Lallana, whose anonymous display came largely because he struggled to find any space to work in.
This was because Coutinho, asked to play slightly off targetman Christian Benteke, couldn’t help himself from occupying much of the area where Lallana thrives, leaving the former Saints man with nowhere to go.
It meant for much of the game that Liverpool’s midfield were negotiating some sort of uneasy compromise with themselves. Henderson and Milner didn’t have the confidence to get forward at the risk of leaving too many gaps in behind, Lallana feared bumping into Coutinho, while Simon Mignolet and Liverpool’s defenders had few intentions of interacting with them anyway, opting instead to regularly take aim for Benteke’s head.
It’s telling that Liverpool’s winner came only after the midfield had been reshuffled, with Emre Can’s introduction at the expense of Lallana meaning the left side was largely vacated for Coutinho to occupy on his own.
With the arrival of Benteke, Rodgers clearly intends to implement a more direct style on occasions, which will put Coutinho’s efficacy into even more doubt. The Brazilian may wear number 10, but if Rodgers hopes for him to feed off Benteke’s scraps and knock-downs on the edge of the box, he may well be disappointed. Coutinho excels when finding the ball deeper, in between midfield and attack and often out wide, allowing him to drive and cut in as he did at Stoke.
Back when Liverpool came within a whisker of winning the league two seasons ago, there was no such ambiguity about their system. In fielding one of Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva, they accommodated a more natural holding midfielder who would allow Steven Gerrard and Henderson more freedom in central areas. This in turn ensured the wide inward-drifting roles of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge were just as clear, leaving Luis Suarez to do his best work at the top of the three.
This clear, concise and coherent combination nearly handed Liverpool their first title in 23 years. Now they’re only 8/5 to finish in the top four.
When Coutinho played that season, and he played a key part with five goals, he was made to fit this system. For whatever reason, Rodgers has altered his thinking, omitting the holding player (with Lucas outcast) in favour of giving Coutinho – a player whose Opta stats show he lost possession 63 times last season – a more expansive role. It does not seem to be working.
The manager admitted that he was close to bringing Coutinho off for Danny Ings – a more natural partner for Benteke – just minutes before the goal flew in. For the sake of Liverpool’s long-term success, he might want to trust his instinct.