When Philippe Coutinho joined Liverpool in January for £8.5 million, not many people foresaw the immediate impact he would make. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Many people questioned whether the 20-year old Brazilian would be strong enough to cope with the physical nature of the Premier League. They said that despite possessing plenty of talent, the diminutive Brazilian was more akin to street football than the hustle and bustle of the Premier League. Indeed, there were also concerns over whether his development had stagnated during his time at Internazionale.
To his former coach at Espanyol, though, Coutinho’s blistering start would not have come as a surprise. Many sniggered at the comments made by Mauricio Pochettino – the now Southampton boss – when he claimed that Coutinho was a hybrid of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi. Not so many are sniggering now.
Liverpool’s new number ‘10’ – a far cry from the previous owner of the shirt – has notched up five assists and three goals in just 12 Premier League appearances since January, with his incisive through balls, mazy dribbling skills and clever movement catching the eye of, not only Liverpool supporters, but of all stakeholders in the Premier League.
But amid the other impressive statistics you’ve most likely read over recent weeks, what has been most impressive about Coutinho’s start to life on Merseyside is in how he has stepped up to the plate, in the absence of Liverpool’s talismanic Uruguayan, Luis Suarez.
Admittedly, Coutinho’s fellow new recruit, Daniel Sturridge, also deserves credit for adding another positive dimension to Liverpool’s attack, but it is the vision and invention of the prodigy from Rio de Janeiro that has been most impressive. He has that rare ability to play a pass through the eye of a needle – as witnessed on numerous occasions.
With Suarez suspended for biting Branislav Ivanovic, Coutinho was given license to play further infield, in the hole behind the striker. From this position, Coutinho was able to have a greater influence on the game, construct attacks and score goals himself. The constant flashes of brilliance from Coutinho have been a welcome sight for Liverpool, who have all too often relied on Suarez to be the key master. And as good as Luis Suarez is – make no mistake, he has been incredible this season – Coutinho, arguably, offers more to the team than Suarez does.
Suarez is a maverick, a free spirit, an individualist – absolutely brilliant at what he does – but Coutinho possesses the ability to connect things together; his blossoming on-field relationships with the likes of Sturridge and Suarez prove that. Ultimately, it is his natural instinct to be a ‘team player’ that could prove most crucial to Liverpool’s hopes of success – even more so than Suarez’s individual magic. It is for this reason that Liverpool should focus on building a team around their rising star.
Next season, Liverpool have possibly the best chance they are ever likely to get to force their way back into English football’s ‘top four’ and to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2007. Under entirely unusual circumstances, English football’s top three clubs of 2012/13 will have new managers come next season’s opener in August. In turn, it is to be expected that the managerial merry-go-round could mean that next year is one of transition, a season to adapt to a new manager’s ideas and methods, for severalof the Premier League’s elite clubs
The prospect of resurgence means that it is crucial Liverpool buy the right players in this summer’s transfer window, or else regret a missed opportunity. The right players are those that will accentuate the strengths of Coutinho. Looking at the higher end of the pitch, Liverpool need more players with the capability of dispatching the chances he creates, particularly in wide areas. But that’s only half the story. It is no secret that the Reds need to improve defensively, too, especially with the retirement of club legend Jamie Carragher, the underwhelming performances of Martin Skrtel, and the seemingly out-of-favour Sebastian Coates. To make best use of Coutinho’s talents, Liverpool first need players who can break up the play and get the ball to him.
Providing a successful summer – which not only includes making the correct additions to the squad, but also means keeping hold of key players – Liverpool could mount a serious challenge for the top four next season. Amid the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, there is reason for Liverpool supporters to be optimistic. In Philippe Coutinho, the club has a special talent. He’s not the finished product, but at the tender age of 20-years old, he’s only likely to get better. That, alone, is a scary thought. The suits at Internazionale must be wincing.