With Liverpool’s tour of Asia now at an end and the squad back in Merseyside, Philippe Coutinho will be feeling adequately warmed up for the 2013/14 season after continuing the impressive form he has consistently displayed since his arrival at Anfield in January. However, he hasn’t stopped at simply emulating last season’s form. Some of his displays in the last three weeks have been nothing short of a masterclass. This led to Brendan Rodgers claiming he would pay to watch the Brazilian, who gets him ‘off his seat’ with his class on the ball, and there is now a lot of evidence to suggest that his potential may stretch well beyond Liverpool fans’ wildest dreams.
With three goals this pre-season, the pick of the bunch was hands down this finish against Thailand in which Coutinho jinked and shuffled through an entire defence before stroking the ball home. I could watch it 100 times. This article will attempt to give a detailed run down of the many qualities Coutinho possesses in different areas of the pitch, in and out of possession, which separate him from the typical wide player or attacking central midfielder. Also, without turning this into too much of a statistical comparison article, I will try to make a few necessary references to some players of his calibre at other EPL clubs (Cazorla at Arsenal, Mata at Chelsea and David Silva at Man City).
Much has been said about the specific ‘player types’ that Brendan Rodgers is looking for in order to build his desired team, and the crucial requirements for the players he brings in tend to revolve around speed, technical ability, work rate, and tactical discipline and awareness. Coutinho is a player who has all of these attributes in abundance, and it is extremely rare to be able to say that. So many modern players can play with skill and finesse, but lack the work rate or the tactical knowledge of how and when to use their abilities to their advantage. So many players can spot an ‘eye of the needle’ pass also; they just simply don’t have it in the locker to make it happen, let alone on a regular basis.
Coutinho’s creativity is therefore a massive asset. We saw throughout last season how frequently he was able to carve out opportunities for his team mates out of ’nothing.’ This is evident in his clear-cut chance statistics, in which he created one every 103.6 minutes. To put this into perspective, Santi Cazorla created one every 220.5 minutes, 196 for Juan Mata and every 193.9 minutes for David Silva. It is important to consider Coutinho has only played 932 minutes since his arrival, which is around 3 times less than his competitors. If he is able to maintain those sort of statistics next season, however, it is scary to think that he could be twice as effective in this area as the best attacking midfielders in the league. An even more intriguing factor to consider is that these 932 minutes include his ‘settling in’ period of adjustment to arguably the fastest league in the world. Is it possible that these creative statistics could exceed their current levels now he has adapted?
From this video of Coutinho’s most recent performance against Thailand, it is easy to see how his confidence has grown. From a technical perspective ‘disguise’ is perhaps Coutinho’s greatest technical weapon. It is incredible sometimes how effective he is at deceiving his opposition, either by deft touches, dropping his shoulder, shifting his hips or manipulating the ball with any part of his foot so easily. It allows him to drift past players, or drag his marker into an awful position where he has a calmness as the ball arrives to him, followed by the awareness to play and spin round them leaving them exposed. This excellent tactical video analysis of Liverpool’s 6-0 win over Newcastle by UEFA A licensed coach Michael Jolley (@michaeljolley07 on Twitter) is a must watch for a deeper insight into the function of Liverpool’s 4-3-3, and there is a particular focus on the role of Coutinho within this analysis.
What you may notice from watching Coutinho is that when starting on the left, he plays an extremely deep and narrow role. There have been a few grumbles from some Liverpool fans who prefer Coutinho being played through the middle, where he is undeniably dangerous and creative from all areas of the pitch. However, it does make sense for Brendan Rodgers to occasionally employ him on the left hand side for this reason:
We play with three midfielders most weeks and he gives us that fourth man because he jumps inside, and in this modern game it’s a lot about superiority centrally, and he’s got the feet and the technique to go inside and deal with that.
In games where Liverpool can expect to dominate the midfield, Coutinho adds another dimension by coming in off the left. It allows Jose Enrique more space to move into and disrupts the organisation of the opposition’s defence, leaving the full back undecided, while it also effectively gives Liverpool a second attacking central midfielder.
Here is an example of how deep and narrow Coutinho was coming during the Thailand game in order to get on the ball, playing a pass to Kolo Toure near the centre circle before moving on to look for space higher up the pitch. However, this does not mean that Coutinho neglects the left wing. He is very disciplined tactically and the image shows his work ethic and determination to chase down the ball, and following this he shows his awareness to drop back into his natural wider position so the team can organise their defensive shape.
What is interesting about Coutinho is that when he starts in the attacking central position, he tends to drop into extremely deep positions in order to get on the ball. He can pull strings from these positions, and then seconds later he can drift into the ‘pockets’ of space highlighted in the tactics board above. You can also see an example of this below from the final game of last season, in which there is a visible absence of Coutinho from the area between the lines. Sturridge always does well to maintain a high position on his centre backs to stretch play and maintain this channel of space, and if you look just to the right of the box you can see it then allows for the wide forward to move into the channel undetected and Coutinho to pick him out and progress forwards.
An interesting statistic for Coutinho last season was his surprisingly low pass completion rate, which averaged just 74% (Mata 85%, Cazorla 87%, Silva 85%). However, when watching him play, there are clues as to why this is. On top of his regular misplaced passes which tend to happen to all players, the statistic is compounded by the fact he has simply no fear of trying difficult forward passes. To put this into perspective, he played 35% of his passes forwards last season – Mata only played 28%, Cazorla 29%, but Silva 36%. With David Silva playing a higher percentage of passes forwards, and keeping his accuracy 11% higher, it would seem that there has been a combination of two things happening. The first is there being slightly more risk to Coutinho’s passes. He attempts to break the ‘lines’ very often and is not scared to attempt a through ball if he sees it (not that this is a weakness for any of the players in question). The second thing is simply adjusting to the Premier League: Coutinho had very low pass completions for his first few games, then raised them to above 80% for his final three games of last season, suggesting that he is now adapting to the pace and style of the league. This is allowing him to complete more of his passes.
So to conclude, statistical polishing aside, it looks to be a very exciting season for Liverpool fans to be able to observe the development of Coutinho. He has only turned 21 recently and surely has many more years to grow into something far greater than the fantastic player he already is. I may divide opinions with the suggestion that he already looks to be a better player than Luis Suarez, but quite frankly it’s a joke how good he can go on to be, and anyone who cares for the technical and tactical subtleties of the game may be inclined to agree that he is certainly lining himself up to be one of, if not the best young players in the Premier League.
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