May 31, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Just One Coutinho

Coutinho-Liverpool-Wallpaper

Just under six weeks ago I wrote on Twitter that Philippe Coutinho “has the potential to be even better than Suarez” and that he is “arguably the best signing we’ve made in a decade, and possibly even longer”.

At the time, the responses I got were a mix of people claiming it was too early to call, and others telling me that while good, he wasn’t yet a patch on Luis Suarez. Just a month and a half and several scintillating performances later, and the mood has shifted somewhat.

On this week’s The Anfield WrapNeil Atkinson et al had such high praise for the little Brazilian that you could be forgiven for thinking Suarez had moved on already, going as far as calling for Rodgers to build the side around him. Some might think it still too soon to make such judgements, but in Suarez’s absence Coutinho has already shown he has the ability to pull the attacking strings, and already looks like one of, if not the best passer in the league at just 20.

In chess, Knights are unique in their ability to jump over opposition pieces, unlocking defences and providing a penetration into opposition ranks that other pieces cannot give. Move a bishop out wide, and nothing is lost – their range inwards is increased just as their reach outwards is diminished, but as experienced chess players know, you don’t move your Knights to the side of the board where half their moves are lost. Coutinho’s ability to see and execute sublime through-balls is similar to the defence-cracking ability of Knights. The more options you give him, the more damage he can do. From the left, he’s forced to play either forward or infield, but deployed centrally and he can pick out targets to either side or ahead, slicing through defences in a way others players only dream they could.

But the key to getting the most from Coutinho is two-fold. As much as players we need players ahead and to either side of him to finish the chances he creates, two players are required in behind him to make sure he isn’t bullied and provide the solid platform for him to play from. One must be an enforcer whose job is to shield the defence and win possession back, while the second provides the glue in midfield and supplies the main creator.

It was once Xabi Alonso feeding Steven Gerrard (with Mascherano winning possession), but the older and less mobile Gerrard now performs a role similar to that Xabi used to play. His ability to see a pass and get play moving quickly should make him ideal for taking the ball from deep and feeding it to Coutinho to do the damage further forward. When Gerrard eventually follows Carragher into retirement, it could be Joe Allen binding the play through the middle, but while the captain still has plenty to offer, it’s hard to see him making way next season. One player who could is Lucas Leiva, especially if Coutinho is given a more central role. With a player as diminutive as Coutinho as one of the three midfielders, and Gerrard not the physical presence he once was, the most defensive of the trio needs to compensate, and the post-injuries Lucas is neither the biggest or most mobile defensive midfielder.

So if Coutinho is to play centrally, what, then, of Luis Suarez? It’s natural for fans to mentally prepare themselves for him leaving, and now there is a new kid on the block, it’s a lot easier to contemplate life without Luis. So it’s not surprising that there have been murmurs that we could even be better off without him. It’s true that Suarez has his faults. At times he is a little selfish, and when he’s off his game he is wasteful with his passing, dribbling and finishing, giving the ball away cheaply and trying shots from audacious angles. Of course, Suarez does often pull off the ridiculous, so it’s hard to fault him when it doesn’t work, and you don’t want to completely tame the beast, but by playing him wide his weaknesses could be minimised, without negating his unique ability.

I noted some time ago that Suarez is perhaps most effective cutting in from tight angles and causing havoc from the byline. When he picks the ball up at the side of the box, it’s almost impossible to predict whether he will cut to the byline and attack from there (as he did in setting up Dirk Kuyt against United last season), try to nutmeg the defender, or twist and turn, putting defenders off-balance and drawing fouls. And that’s not even including the options of passing or shooting. Suarez will never be a traditional winger (who would want one of those, anyway?) but he’s adept playing as an inside forward, as he has for both Ajax and Uruguay, and a more traditional winger or even a right-sided attacking midfielder on the opposite flank could offer balance to offset his unpredictability and tendency to roam. Whether that player is Downing, Sterling, Henderson or somebody brought in this summer, it looks like next year’s ’3′ behind the striker will be well stocked for creativity and flair.

With Sturridge ahead of them forcing teams deep with his pace, and finishing off moves, there’s the making of a top attacking side coming together at Anfield. Of course, that is only one half of the puzzle, and the key job for Rodgers this summer is to sign players to bring the defensive play closer to the attacking standards he has set. The good news is that quality defenders are traditionally the easiest players to come by. It’s usually the creative geniuses who are added as the last piece of the puzzle, and Liverpool have not one, but two of those already.

While Suarez weaves his magic via frantic dribbling and a burning desire to win on his own if needs be, Coutinho is clam, calculated and brilliant at bringing his teammates into play. Not that he can’t dribble with the best of them too. He can, and very few players have the feat of a ballerina and the vision of an artist.

And that’s why Coutinho is a very special player indeed. All he needs is a better song….

 

This article was first published on This is Anfield

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