IT’S been a while since Phil Coutinho has been serenaded by The Kop after witnessing one of his Anfield exhibitions. Of late, the Ole’s for the Brazilian conjurer have been in short supply.
Coutinho is clearly still struggling in the wake of his ill-timed, mid-season ankle injury. Since returning to the fold in January the familiar enchanting rhythm of Coutinho’s football has been largely absent. The goals have dried up, his timing has been off and for the first time in his Liverpool career the player seems paralysed by self-doubt.
Just prior to his withdrawal at The Etihad last Sunday a jinking run or two here and there, and a couple of visionary reverse passes were encouraging signs of Coutinho finally clicking into gear but his substitution again saw the return of a perplexed, vacant look on his face portraying a player searching vainly for his best form. That the Reds’ attacking momentum was all but lost after his departure will have been of little consolation.
It is a far cry from the inspirational Coutinho of early season. In the opening third of the campaign Liverpool danced to a beat set by his dropped shoulders and mesmeric dribbles. In front of goal a rapier-like precision during the autumn temporarily convinced of Jürgen Klopp’s wisdom to deploy him in a front three.
From the moment he kick-started the Reds’ campaign with a curling free-kick equaliser at Arsenal, Coutinho hit a purple patch elevating his game to world class. In the same game an outrageous, improvised finish with his left shin from a Nathaniel Clyne cross was testament to his instinctive genius. Further emphatic strikes in the rampant Anfield performances against Hull, West Brom and Watford suggested an increased goals ratio would complement his omnipresent creative spark.
The reality, though, is that Coutinho has never been a prolific goalscorer and you would be hard-pressed to label him a striker. His record of 35 goals in 172 Liverpool games emphasises the point. When he does hit the net, it is invariably in spectacular fashion; his right foot capable of rare whip and bend patenting the trademark curling Coutinho strike from distance.
Since the early phase of his Liverpool career he has largely eradicated a former predilection for dragging shots wide from good positions.
However, his default deeper position on the pitch and role as the arch prompter – even when nominally lining up alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane – precludes him from being a regular scorer. The goals tend to fly in unannounced, when he’s at his rampant best jinking past his man on the inside within shooting distance.
Never shy of the required work-rate of a Liverpool player under Klopp, Coutinho mucks in with the best when it comes to defensive duties. But, Coutinho’s gifts lie in his artistry and just for the moment the brushstrokes aren’t flowing.
Coutinho has set exceptionally high standards ever since his move from Internazionale five years ago. Since the departure of Luis Suarez he is readily identified as Liverpool’s best player. Potential interest from Barcelona and Paris St Germain last summer only confirms the repute in which he is held beyond the Liverpool bubble. That the club moved during his enforced lay-off to offer an improved, lengthy contract – while protecting a prime asset – also spoke of his value to the current squad and Klopp’s long-term plans.
It is against those exalted standards Coutinho is being judged now. Supporters are baffled by his extended struggles but only the most irrational would agree with Stan Collymore’s assessment this week that Liverpool should consider selling “if the price were right”. Collymore’s asserts that “Coutinho’s a great six games a season player but…just isn’t consistent”. His contradictory notion that the might of Barcelona or Real Madrid might “tickle the Reds’ fancy” with a bid for a player incapable of delivering more than a handful of stellar performances also decries Coutinho’s progressive impact over five seasons.
When the 20-year old Coutinho arrived from Italy for a fee of £8.5 million he was something of an unknown quantity. Although Rafa Benitez, during his San Siro tenure, once described him as “the future of Inter”, he failed to establish himself in Serie A and was shipped out on loan to Espanyol. Benitez had previously recommended Coutinho to Damian Comolli and Liverpool eventually took the plunge. Assessing the current value of the player it was certainly a gamble worth taking.
There is an issue with the definition of consistency for a player with a mercurial talent like Coutinho. Creative, flair players, wholly reliant on touch and timing are always at the mercy of vagaries in form and sometimes a skewed interpretation of their contribution by fans and pundits.
In the 1970s inventive midfielders flush with talent such as Tony Currie, Stan Bowles and Duncan McKenzie were often lambasted for only putting in a shift when it suited; lauded for their supreme gifts for decorating football matches but always with a caveat for critics wanting and expecting more. If such a player had the occasional stinker, a rogue performance would habitually be passed off as laziness or a lack of application. Seldom would the word “confidence” – or lack of it – explain away a dip in standards.
Similarly, Peter Beardsley during his time at Liverpool would often frustrate with periods when his form dipped alarmingly. The feints, dummies, nutmegs wouldn’t come off and he would be easily dispossessed. Beardsley would continue to graft but his football brain was wired to play on the edge, to take risks and eschew simple passes. When he was on form he looked a world beater but when his game was a little off key he could resemble a novice. Coutinho, in a similar sense, plays on instinct and the moment he begins to over-think loses some of his ingenuity.
The last two months feels like an extended, sometimes painful spell of rehabilitation for Coutinho. Two successive league matches – against Burnley and Man City – have seen him pulled from the fray just past the hour mark, although he completed 87 minutes last night for Brazil in a World Cup qualifier. Perhaps the nature of his injury – and the legacy of a weakened ankle – affects not only his uniquely angled body shape when shooting but also his ability to skip and propel his way past opponents.
There is always a temptation to look beyond the obvious for a player not hitting his straps. It is hard to imagine Coutinho never scaling the same heights in a red shirt but fans might have to be patient a while yet. That said, the remainder of the season offers an opportunity to see him back to his best. The Brazilian jaunt, a change of scenery and a break from the intensity of domestic action will do him good.
Nine, pressurised league matches then follow as the Reds attempt to crown a progressive season with Champions League football. The opposition mostly represent sides in the lower reaches of the table and Liverpool’s supposed Achilles heel. For Coutinho though it is chance to stamp his authority over the Premier League’s lesser lights. He needs to cast off his doubts, remember who he is and impose his superiority over the division’s mere mortals.
Confidence in football is a fickle beast. As simplistic as it sounds all he probably needs for the old conviction to come flooding back is a goal.
Sooner rather than later, Liverpool fans should expect Coutinho to remind of the adage that form is temporary, class is permanent.