Jurgen Klopp termed his side’s win against Burnley on Sunday as “the first ugly victory” of the season. Liverpool had barely scraped past the worst traveling side in the league with two fairly lucky goals and all Liverpool fans were just thankful for the three points. Indeed, if you followed the match only on social media, you may be forgiven for believing that Liverpool had actually lost against another bottom half-side. Such was the gloomy conversation in social media.
Much scorn on social media was reserved for one of the best players in the Reds’ team – Philippe Coutinho. When on form he is such a gifted and aesthetically pleasing player that he makes his entire team look good. On Sunday, however, he had such a shoddy game that he was substituted out in the 60th minute and replaced by a teenager. Moreover, the Anfield crowd did not even express its displeasure over their “El Magico” being taken off. Perhaps the reverse is also true – when Coutinho does not play well, the entire team looks ugly.
His abject performance – a WhoScored rating of 6.18 suggests that it would not have made a lot of difference if he had not played at all (rating of 6.00), has led many experts and fans to disparage him. On Twitter, suddenly a lot of “I-told-you-so”s sprang up saying why Liverpool will be better suited by parting ways with the Brazilian in the summer. Experienced columnists ended up concluding that Coutinho is not a star, instead he is an asset that can flourish with stars in the side.
As a Liverpool fan, my instinctive reaction to such criticism is he is Reds’ best player and such calls for re-assessment of value to Liverpool are uncalled for. But after all the instinctive reactions, football teams and perhaps their fans benefit the most out of calm analysis of facts, data and trends. So, that is what I am trying to accomplish here – trying to calmly assess if Coutinho’s value to Liverpool has indeed diminished or was Sunday just an especially bad outing for him.
The general belief is that Coutinho has been poor since getting injured against Sunderland on November 26. But as can be seen from the Squawka chart below, he had been underperforming quite consistently since the 0-0 draw against Southampton earlier in November. So, there is no denying that the little magician is a bit off the boil for the last 3-4 months now.
But what the chart also tells us is that these four months, a couple of which he lost due to injury, are sort of different in that his form dipped and then varied within a low range for a long time, till he put in a good performance against Leicester in late February. Otherwise, his performances are more prone to a couple of really tall peaks, followed by one or two really bad troughs, quickly followed by tall peaks again. And not just this season, it is a feature of Coutinho’s performances across the last 3 seasons at least.
This means that his poor performance against Burnley was a bit expected since he had seen a peak of 93 against Leicester and had a decent game (42) against Arsenal. Also, the trend of bouncing back from poor performances (troughs) means that he could play much better against Manchester City five days later. Liverpool fans should be hoping that he reverts to his long-term trend instead of the form he showed prior to the Leicester game.
Which Part of His Game Is Suffering?
One common theme emerges when we look at the underlying data for these performance score. In games, where Coutinho’s performance score is low, the opposition managed to stifle his shooting and his ability to feed the ball to his fellow attackers. Against Burnley, his performance score was -23 and he had zero shots and zero chances created.
Similarly, against Chelsea on January 31 (performance score of -22), he had no shots and just one chance created. In the loss against Swansea (-11), he again had zero shots and just one chance created.
Coutinho’s game is defined by his ability to feed the ball to his fellow attackers and his ability to cut inside from the left flank and shoot, many a times from outside the box. He averages 4.1 shots per 90 minutes and 1.4 shots on target per 90 minutes. He also averages 2.7 shot assists per 90 minutes.
What tightly packed and well-drilled defenses like Burnley and Chelsea did was limit these dimensions of his game severely, by excellent pressing and marking against him. Against Burnley, we only saw him pass the ball around, albeit with 80% accuracy. This sterile movement of the ball is what makes the Brazilian look bad, as he is not able to attack himself or enable his teammates to attack.
It seems that the opponents have a clear game plan against Coutinho of stifling his predominant behaviors, which then leads to a completely subdued performance from the Brazilian.
But do I find that Liverpool need to reassess Coutinho’s utility and value to the team? I think not. His value is in those huge peaks that he manages. It must be remembered that we are talking about a 24-year old player. Midfielders attain their peak performance a bit later than strikers and it is possible that Coutinho’s best performances still lie in the future. Liverpool and the player himself should perhaps focus on getting those peaks and relative high performances on a consistent basis, without as many troughs as Coutinho tends to get during a season.
But to dismiss him as not being a star and to start talking about selling him for a better player is premature. Objectively, by Squawka performance score (718, next best is Mane at 555), he is the best player for Liverpool this season, although the recent memories of his slump tend to cloud our judgement. I feel Coutinho can become a star in his own right (if he is not one already), if he and Liverpool manage to find a way around the opponents’ stifling tactics for the Brazilian.