Tuesday, September 17, 2019

What Went Wrong with Coutinho?

Veselin Trajkovic in Editorial, La Liga 7 Apr 2019

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Philippe Coutinho joined Liverpool from Inter Milan back in January, 2013, for £8.5 million. During his time at Anfield, he grew from a relatively unimportant youngster, but one of great potential, to arguably the best player the Merseyside club had.

He became a regular in the starting XI in 2013/14, when Liverpool launched a surprise title run which ended in failure. Playing in a deeper midfield role along with the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, the Brazilian was given enough freedom in his play to express his creativity from which the deadly duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, as well as Raheem Sterling behind them, benefited a lot.

But it was actually the decline of the iconic captain, coinciding with the departure of Suarez to Barcelona in 2014 and his eventual departure along with Sterling in 2015, that really opened the door for Coutinho to blossom and grow into a fully formed attacking maestro. Working with Jurgen Klopp since the German’s arrival in October 2015 instilled some defensive discipline in him as well, while his shooting from distance improved beyond recognition.

Klopp deployed Coutinho on the left attacking flank in 2016/17. He worked well with Roberto Firmino who has always been a player extremely capable of playing for his teammates, as well as Sadio Mane whose runs in behind defences provided him with options when on the ball.

But he was the key to the way the team was playing. He often drifted inwards, into the seemingly unoccupied No.10 position and from there, he pulled the strings. Through the relentless work of his teammates, he was able to either make use of his deadly shot from range, dribble past opponents at a full run, or thread cunning passes forward for runners to latch onto. But that freedom of choice and the confidence the team had in him was what made him shine.

Following a long and extremely wearying transfer saga, he finally made his “dream move” – to follow in the footsteps of Suarez and play alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Since then, things haven’t been going according to his plan anymore.

Naturally, there is only one player in that team which has the freedom that Coutinho needs to thrive, and that player is Messi. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is the one drifting from wide into that No.10 position; he is the one in whom the rest of the team have all the confidence, and given the Argentinian’s brilliance, it’s quite understandable that Coutinho isn’t getting what he craves as a player.

He is being restricted through instructions, and his tendency to think outside the box and occasionally do his own thing is coming across as baseless arrogance, rather than taking initiative. It’s not about the position he plays in.

Prior to his arrival, he was seen as a suitable replacement for the departing Andres Iniesta. But Iniesta was one of the players that initially helped develop Messi, his rank at the club was quite different to that of Coutinho, and the Spanish playmaker had that freedom. He and Messi had played together for a long time at Camp Nou, up to the point where they started clicking instinctively and there was nothing a manager needed to tell those two to do. They always knew.

Coutinho needed time to develop an understanding with his teammates and find consistency at Liverpool, but given the gradual progress of Liverpool as a team at that stage, he walked hand in hand with that progress. At Barcelona, he arrived as a supposedly finished article for a huge sum of €160 million, and was naturally expected to shine straight away. The pressure soon started telling on him, and now, almost 18 months into his Camp Nou adventure, it seems the Catalans have started regretting their move.

Coutinho has made it clear that he wishes to remain there after this summer, and maybe he will, but by the time he earns the trust and confidence he once had at Liverpool again at Barcelona, it may well be too late for him; or he may never be given the time.

Leaving and finding pastures completely new is probably the best way to go, but where? There are a lot of things the player once known as the “little magician” needs to ponder; this time carefully.


Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on four different football blogs.



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