It’s often said that in the biggest games of the season fans rely on their biggest players to make the difference. Well that couldn’t be any more truer when you look at Philippe Coutinho’s performance away at West Ham last weekend.
The Reds travelled to East London with the weight of fans expectations on their shoulders. Arsenal had thumped Stoke the previous day meaning one more slip up for Jurgen Klopp’s team and the race for the top four was no longer in their hands. Fans hopes were hardly raised when the news filtered through that Roberto Firmino hadn’t even made the squad, but were given a glimmer of hope when it was announced that Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi would be starting up front together for the first time since November.
This subsequently meant a new change in position for Coutinho. The Brazilian was moved from the left side of LFC’s devastating front three to a more natural position of central midfield. Here he acted as a number 8 and it was no surprise that 34% of the away sides play went through the middle of the park such was the influence of Liverpool’s little magician.
2016/17 has been undoutedly Coutinho’s best season in a red shirt as he has registered 12 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League, despite missing around three months through injury. Sixteen of these goal contributions have come from when Coutinho has started on the left hand side of the attack, somewhere that is less unknown to him. Whilst it allows him to cut inside and unleash one of his curling strikes towards goal, Liverpool’s lack of width from the full-backs on that side limits the damage Coutinho can do against a team that uses a deep block. Milner often cuts back on to his right foot meaning the space that the 24-year-old looks to go into is no longer there. This makes teams job of stifling Coutinho a lot easier and it has happened on several occasions this campaign; Burnley, Southampton, Hull to name a few.
The four players that have mainly interchanged in the three midfield roles this season – Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana – have all chipped in with more goal contributions this season, but when facing a deep block it is clear to see they lack the killer pass that someone like Coutinho possesses. Then when he goes looking for the ball deeper in the field of play it gives the full-back the chance to tuck in and focus on doubling up on other players from the Liverpool team.
Therefore by placing Coutinho in a starting midfield role it gives him the freedom of the pitch and allows him to come deep to gather the ball from one of the two centre-halves, thereby creating a tough dilemma for the opposition players and manager. Do you simply allow him space to bring the ball further up the pitch and risk giving him time to either pick the decisive pass or shoot, or do you push up as a unit towards him on the offset that you may allow the front three to beat the offside trap – like Sturridge did last weekend.
Today’s opponents, Middlesbrough, tend to prefer the former. Marten De Roon, Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter all barely influenced Boro’s proceedings going forward as they achieved just 113 touches of the ball between them compared to the 182 of Arsenal duo Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey.
Instead they acted as a compact three (shown by the average position map of the game below) looking to disrupt Arsenal’s more creative duo. For large periods of the game it worked, but facing the more mobile tricky Brazilian could be a different challenge entirely.
With two goals and an assist against the Hammers, Liverpool fans must be wondering what kind of stats Coutinho could have produced if he had been playing in this central role for the whole season. Well us fans might not have to wait that long if Klopp’s recent press conference was anything to go by:
Klopp on Coutinho: "I spoke to him about the future. He is not a winger, he is always a playmaker. He needs to be in the decisive area." pic.twitter.com/8ijjOzqmp8
— Anfield Edition (@AnfieldEdition) May 14, 2017
With the return of Sadio Mane on the right and the expected addition of another winger on the left, this new system could bring out the best of Coutinho and propel Liverpool to the top of English football once more. However, right now all eyes will be on whether ‘O Magico’ can guide the Anfield club back into the UEFA Champions League.
By Taylor Powling (@TayIorSport)