IT feels good watching the Reds scoring goals for fun once more. It feels even better when it comes at a point in the season where the pressure to win is extreme, away from home against a side Liverpool have made a habit of struggling against in recent seasons. After three satisfying, gritty but acutely tense away victories on the bounce, a 4-0 hammering of West Ham at the Olympic Stadium was gloriously refreshing.
To see Daniel Sturridge and his wriggly arms wreaking havoc was a heartwarming sight. It might well turn out to be his Liverpool swansong or it may not — if his recent comments about his excellent relationship with the manager are anything to go by, perhaps there is still a role for Sturridge at the club next season. I would like that to be the case.
Yet it was Philippe Coutinho, resplendent in the “number eight” role on the left side of Jürgen Klopp’s midfield diamond, who stole the show with a mesmeric first half assist for Sturridge, bisecting the entire West Ham back line, before two perfectly executed second half goals wrapped up the points to set up the ultimate finale against Middlesborough at Anfield — the final hurdle in the quest for a top four finish.
We’ve become accustomed to the now trademark long-range belters from the Brazilian — he has now scored 14 times from outside the box in the Premier League for Liverpool. However, Sunday’s performance might just be his finest all-round display for the club, especially given the circumstances. Liverpool needed three points with Arsenal still breathing down our necks and Coutinho relished the occasion.
The pass for Sturridge was a moment of pure genius. The vision to spot the run was superb in itself, but to execute it with such finesse was simply sublime. The first goal, to make it 2-0 early in the second half, was crucial in terms of knocking West Ham’s morale. The game became a procession for Liverpool from that point.
After Gini Wijnaldum thumped a sumptuous volley against the bar, Coutinho jinked his way through a crowd of defenders before arrowing a precise drive past Adrian. His second, and Liverpool’s third, was less spectacular but a great show of composure, cutting inside and waiting patiently for the right moment to blast the ball home following a quick counter attack.
Coutinho was at the heart of virtually everything Liverpool did well in this magnificent team performance. Stationed 15-20 yards deeper than we’ve seen for most of this season, he was able to dictate the play with his range of passing and drive forward into space, able to open up his body and glide either left or right, with that extra second of time on the ball.
Liverpool’s midfield has been functional and workmanlike for the past few weeks, with Lucas Leiva, Emre Can and Wijnaldum providing steel and defensive solidity. Yet Coutinho’s presence in this altered set-up brought an extra cutting edge and degree of creativity which augmented Liverpool’s attacking threat to a level we’ve not seen for a long while. Tellingly, the absence of Roberto Firmino wasn’t missed, such was the influence of Coutinho in the midfield.
Although Coutinho played in midfield regularly throughout 2013-14 under Brendan Rodgers, Klopp has not shown any sign of playing him there until now. Yet the manager clearly has thought about it and his recent comments suggest it’s something we’ll be seeing plenty more of in the future.
“He plays at the moment kind of wing ‘10’ but he can also play as a number eight. That is possible and maybe he will have more influence and we can involve another player on the wing.
“That would make us stronger for sure, having his creativity in the middle of the park. He would have to adapt to that.”
Klopp raises another key point here, in that by playing Coutinho in midfield, it opens up a vacant position on the left flank which could be filled by a more natural winger with pace, giving the team an extra attacking dimension and greater balance, as Coutinho tends to drift infield when playing off the left. It’s something which will surely be addressed in the summer transfer window.
Coutinho’s strikes against West Ham took him up to 41 goals in 180 appearances for Liverpool in all competitions, also racking up 35 assists in total. His current tally of 12 league goals is his best ever and his end product has improved season on season. However, you get the sense he’s never going to be a 20-goal forward playing off the left wing and in terms of the overall impact on the team, you certainly get more out of him when deployed in central midfield where he is more able to influence games, rather than having to constantly cut inside from the wing, where his lack of natural pace means he’s not likely to surge past his opposing full-back.
He might even find that playing in midfield and making late runs into the box could enhance his scoring opportunities, as Adam Lallana showed in the first half of the season.
Klopp alluded to this after the West Ham game, saying:
“He needs to be in the decisive area in the middle of the park, in shooting situations.”
If there’s one main criticism of Coutinho throughout his time at Liverpool so far, it’s that he has a tendency to drift through games on the periphery, from time to time. When opponents double up on him on the wing, he can find it difficult to make his mark on the game and will often come searching centrally for the ball.
Playing him in midfield is the solution to that problem. He has the touch, the awareness, and the vision to flourish in the “number eight” role, in a similar vein to how Pep Guardiola has deployed David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield for Manchester City this season — their creativity and guile has been decisive in breaking down compact defences.
Of course, there will be games where Klopp might need more solidity in the midfield as Coutinho is not a naturally defensive-minded player — although his work rate and pressing ability are strong attributes. But against lower-ranked sides, in games where Liverpool enjoy the vast majority of possession, having Coutinho in midfield gives the opposition something extra to think about and he can spot the killer pass that others don’t see.
There has been a strange media narrative in recent weeks suggesting that Klopp and his side have somehow underperformed this season, despite the fact that breaking into the top four with a negative summer transfer spend and a smaller squad than the other top six sides, ravaged by injuries to key players, would represent a major achievement should Liverpool get over the line.
Suggestions that Klopp might not be “all that” have been bandied about, largely centered around Liverpool’s perceived weakness against bottom half sides. It is partly true and too many points have been dropped against the so-called dross of this league. Yet in the latter stages of the season, Klopp has shown that he has found a way to set up his team to get results in these fixtures — away from home, at least.
That’s four successive away victories, against Stoke, West Brom, Watford and West Ham. A hugely impressive run which goes against the mainstream narrative. Liverpool have shown they can battle and against West Ham they showed they can demonstrate their superior quality and win a football match by blowing the opposition away.
Much of that comes down to the manager’s tactical flexibility and innovation, to learn from mistakes and try new things — and to trust his players to get the job done. The decision to play Coutinho in midfield on Sunday came at the perfect time and paid dividends when Liverpool needed it most.
While the Barcelona links show no signs of dying away, all the signs point towards Klopp building for a future with Coutinho at the heart of his midfield. Aged 24, he’s approaching the stage in his career where he needs to make the step up to the very elite bracket, among the world’s finest. Coutinho has all the tools to do that, and the transition into central midfield seems the natural progression towards unlocking his full potential.