“Reckon Phil will really step up this season, you know.” An opinion basically every Liverpool supporter across the globe has expressed in the pre-seasons since the Brazilian signed for the Reds.
Over the last three-and-a-half years we’ve seen moments of pure genius, unbelievable ability and, of course, the trademark worldie. However, with that has come a lot of frustration; the games where he skies everything, consistently over hits through balls, tries to do everything at 100mph and too often tries to play the killer ball, when more patient build-up play may have reaped greater rewards.
Now, I’m well aware that Phil Coutinho has been – rightly, in my opinion – voted our player of the season for the last two years. In many ways, he has been the one shining light in two seasons of massive disappointment for us fans, as we watched our club fail miserably in attempting to capitalise on the success and excitement that 2013/14 brought.
On numerous occasions, over the last few seasons, we have seen Liverpool create so little, ride our luck and be bailed out by a piece of class from Phil. Towards the end of the 2014/15 season there was plenty of debate over ‘what a Liverpool goal looks like’ and in all honesty, such was the lack of creativity and guile at our disposal, the answer would have been ‘Coutinho picking it up from 30 yards and bending one top bin.’
But there were so many moments where he would frustrate the life out of you and, for me, the main reason was those around him and how the side were set up. Phil arrived in January of 2012 as a relative unknown for a comparatively low £8million but the ensuing six-month period had us all in awe. Playing mainly on the left hand side, the then 21-year-old made an immediate impact with three goals and seven assists in 13 games but it was his link-up play with fellow new-boy Daniel Sturridge that was arguably most impressive.
The following season was an interesting one. The little magician put in some great showings, the one sticking out in my head being the 5-1 home win over Arsenal, where nobody could get near him, and the 3-2 against City where, interestingly, he played much deeper in a midfield three a position many Reds believe him to be most effective. But an early injury meant he didn’t really get going until late November and he fell victim to Brendan Rodgers’ desire to play a third central midfielder – usually Joe Allen. The following two seasons can be taken as one reason why Phil’s contribution was limited to moments of genius out of nowhere.
If Luis Suarez wasn’t exactly a striker that suited Coutinho down to the ground, then Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Christian Benteke certainly weren’t either. The things we loved about Phil, namely his ridiculous ability to slide inch-perfect passes in behind defences, was taken away from him with those three signings. At times, he was being forced to play as a traditional winger – tasked with supplying balls into the box for the big men up top – or as a number 10, when the system didn’t suit him.
He was the player Rodgers turned to for his main source of creativity, referring to him as the ‘brains of the operation.’ But, having initially built the side around Suarez and then failing to surround his new star man with relative quality after the Uruguayan departure, frustrations arose. Sturridge didn’t play an awful lot but when he did, he seemed reluctant to break into any sort of sprint and, in any case, there was hardly much movement from the other players to create gaps in a way that could maximise Coutinho’s impact.
So, what’s been so different this year? How has he gone from a Luis Garcia-type player – in that he could create stunning moments but also cause plenty of frustration – into a player who regularly chips in with goals and assists and is central to an attack who look like they can score four every week?
Well, the addition of Sadio Mané is huge. Coutinho, and this Liverpool side, have been crying out for a player of his style and, perhaps more importantly, with his speed for years. His injection of pace into this forward line gives Coutinho the option to slice open resilient backlines.
Breaking down low block teams, who stick 10 men behind the ball, has been an age-old problem for Liverpool, stretching back to when Rafa Benitez was in charge. Mané’s pace forces opposition defenders into either dropping deep, giving Phil the license to work his magic, or holding their line and risking being cut apart.
The impact Mané has had on Phil, and Liverpool as a whole, can be easily demonstrated by the loss to Burnley, the only league game he has missed. The problems of the last two seasons were prevalent at Turf Moor, as we had 81% of the ball but failed to create any real clear-cut opportunities, with the Brazilian at his worst trying to force the issue and blam shots from all over the place.
With two-and-a-half-years of Premier League experience, and at 24 years of age, we’re starting to see an hugely increased level of intelligence and a real footballing brain. He knows when to speed things up, when to hold the ball while his teammates make runs and create options, and when he has space and time to lash one towards goal.
On numerous occasions, in the Palace game alone, he knew when to hold the ball for a second or two to allow Alberto Moreno to overlap and create chances higher up the pitch, one of which led to the first goal. This awareness isn’t a quality we would have always associated with Coutinho – perhaps it has come with experience, maybe it’s Klopp, maybe it’s confidence. I don’t know and, quite frankly, I don’t care. It’s there and we’re a great deal better for it.
The movement between Liverpool’s front three creates acres of space for the midfielders to play in. The combination play and interchanging of Coutinho, Mané and Roberto Firmino – and even Sturridge and Divock Origi, when called upon – drags defenders all over the place, Phil is the main beneficiary of this dropping into the space and getting time on the ball to pick a pass or make space for a shot.
Jürgen has built his side around Phil and we’re going to have some fun watching him this year. There will still be frustration, there will still be games where nothing comes off but that comes with a player of his style and ability.
Phil Coutinho’s really, really good and the sooner we can all get onto that the better. It’s all coming together for this Liverpool side and this may just be the year we win it. It’s been far too long.
Up the Reds.