THE news is in. Phil Coutinho will be out for between five to six weeks with ankle ligament damage. It’s not good, obviously. It could have been far, far worse, though. The images circulating of his distorted ankle following the challenge with Sunderland’s Didier Ndong conjured fears that it might be several months on the sidelines.
The timing is far from ideal, just leading up to the festive period — the busiest part of the season. Having witnessed Sunderland put in the most defensive display of football Jürgen Klopp has ever witnessed at the weekend, Liverpool will certainly find themselves coming up against plenty more sides who have no intention of playing expansive football in the coming weeks. Patience will be required, and the loss of Coutinho — arguably the most useful player in the league at unlocking the most tightly packed of defences — is undoubtedly a major blow.
When you look at the fixture list, however, the games Coutinho is scheduled to miss all seem eminently winnable, with the possible exception of Manchester City’s visit to Anfield on New Year’s Eve, which presents a potentially trickier challenge — although Liverpool tend to excel against more expansive sides.
Bournemouth (A), West Ham (H), M’boro (A), Everton (A), Stoke (H), Man City (H), Sunderland (A).
These are mostly games Liverpool should be capable of taking three points in, even without one of their most influential players. Whereas in the recent past, any injury to a key member of the starting XI would be borderline disastrous, there need not be such a sense of panic at the loss of Coutinho. Klopp has options — plenty of them.
With Adam Lallana’s return imminent, Liverpool will have another of their key players back in the fold. He’ll be expected to go straight back into his central midfield role where he’s performed so exceptionally well this season. A simple option for Klopp might be to stick with Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Lallana in midfield, and move Georginio Wijnaldum into Coutinho’s position on the left of the front three.
The Dutchman played there multiple times for Newcastle last season and a more advanced role might allow him to use his pace and attacking instincts to a greater degree than we’ve seen so far this season. This like-for-like switch would also have the added benefit of being able to retain Roberto Firmino centrally, thus not changing the dynamic of the team too much.
Coutinho hoping to be back inside six weeks if all goes well. Makes Man City on Dec 31 a target for comeback
— paul joyce (@_pauljoyce) November 28, 2016
Alternatively, as Divock Origi showed against Sunderland, he is more than ready to come into the side and make a decisive impact after finding himself stuck on the fringes of late. This would involve shifting Firmino out to the left-hand side, but the Brazilian has shown his adaptability this season and would remain a very effective player in that role. Origi offers a more direct presence with greater pace and physicality up front, and having more of a defined focal point to the attack may well be very useful against compact defences.
Then of course, we still have Daniel Sturridge ready to be unleashed (as soon as he recovers from a minor calf problem). It’s been a frustrating season for Sturridge so far, finding himself to be very much Klopp’s 12th man — the player to call on in case of injury. Had he been fit at the weekend, he surely would’ve been given the nod to play against Sunderland, or at least replace Coutinho when he got injured. The circumstances meant it was Origi who was able to grasp the opportunity. Sturridge hasn’t scored in the league yet this campaign, but four goals in the EFL Cup serve as a reminder (as if we needed one) of his exceptional finishing abilities. His cameo performance coming off the bench in the 6-1 victory against Watford was outstanding. He could easily have had a hat-trick.
Either Origi or Sturridge could play wide if Klopp chose to retain Firmino centrally, given the fluidity of Liverpool’s attack. When he eventually returns to the fold, Sheyi Ojo could even be an option in one of the forward positions, while Ben Woodburn — still only 17 — will be chomping at the bit should any opportunity come his way. Lallana could even be pushed further forward, although it would seem unlikely for Klopp to move him out of the midfield.
It speaks volumes of Liverpool’s strength in depth that players of the calibre of Sturridge and Origi can be called on to step in. It’s a great opportunity for them to get game time and start scoring goals after finding themselves on the bench this season. If the timing is roughly accurate, Coutinho should be in line to return just around the time when Mane is set to depart for the AFCON in January, which coincides well.
If you’re being ultra-positive about the situation, Coutinho will return after the festive period when many other players — both from Liverpool and other teams — will be feeling the effects of a busy schedule. He’ll not have played a single game in December and an enforced mini-break could potentially avoid burn out and serve him well come the end of the season.
Given reports that Klopp already has intentions to sign a wide player in January, you would also expect that Coutinho’s injury might force his hand somewhat to go into the transfer market and add that extra bit of firepower to bolster his ranks for the second half of the season. If Liverpool are to last the distance, an additional reinforcement of quality in January could well be a decisive factor.
There are always going to be hurdles to overcome when mounting a title challenge. This happens to be a particularly unfortunate one at a time when Coutinho is arguably the finest player in the league, enjoying the best season of his career to date. You can be sure, however, that Klopp and his players will not allow this to derail their season. As frustrating as it is, there is absolutely no reason to despair. This is the value of having a squad of quality footballers — now is the time for Klopp to use that depth.