The more time passes on the 2013-14 EPL season, the more we’ve learned just how much of a one year outlier that Liverpool side really was. Sure, we kind of already knew that when Luis Suarez left after the 2014 World Cup, but to the degree to which it’s hampered Liverpool as a club currently is pretty astounding.
That Liverpool side was the most entertaining and high octane EPL side since the Rooney/Ronaldo/Tevez trio that ran roughshed on European football in 2007-08, and today’s Liverpool are the furthest thing from that. In many ways, the 2013-14 Liverpool side are almost the opposite team that we would associate with a Brendan Rodgers side: a ridiculously direct, high pressing side that played at a pace reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund at their peak or the 2014-15 Marseille side led by Marcelo Bielsa.
Offensively, that Liverpool side was structured in a very good way. There were two shot producing monsters (Suarez, Sturridge), a creative winger with incredible pace (Sterling), an unorthodox #10 who could play as a central midfielder on occasion (Coutinho) and an underrated playmaking central midfielder (Henderson). There’s little substantial remnants remaining from that squad. Suarez is in Spain, Gerrard is in LA, Sturridge has been hurt for the majority of time post SAS, and Sterling is with Manchester City. Of the players who played major minutes in that offensive setup, only Coutinho and Jordan Henderson are still left.
It’s actually really hard to know what Liverpool are at the moment, another turn in the Brendan Rodgers era. It’s gone from wanting Liverpool to create some form of Swansea-lona football, to the English recreation of Dortmund, to a weird hybrid of the two last season, to whatever you would consider this iteration. One could say that it shows the flexibility of Rodgers to adapt on the fly, but the degree in which he’s flip flopped on his team’s identity is more an indicator of a man not knowing what he truly wants.
In many ways, Coutinho represents the Brendan Rodgers era in a nutshell. When Liverpool got both Coutinho and Sturridge in the January transfer window in 2013, the groundwork was being laid for the fearsome attack that followed. No one really could expect the heights that Liverpool touched both offensively and points wise, but Liverpool were much better in the second half of the 2012-13 season with the Coutinho/Sterling/Suarez/Sturridge core.
Coutinho’s role when SAS and Sterling were on board was perfect: he is a creative player in the right circumstances. He is a very good through-ball passer and his dribbling ability allows him to get into areas where he can play 1-2’s in any part of the midfield. What made Coutinho particularly unique back then was his ability to play as a faux central midfielder in diamond formations. He was brilliant against Arsenal in the 5-1 victory in 13-14 and the 4-0 win against Tottenham in April with his ability to make passes from deep and tackle (an underrated aspect of his game which allowed Liverpool to get away with Henderson and Coutinho as wide CM’s). His production mirrored a unusual but quite effective attacking midfielder
The further that time has moved on from 13-14 Liverpool, the more disjointed and confusing Coutinho has become. Last season was the beginnings of this, although there were still moments of class. The big storyline with Liverpool was their shift from a hybrid diamond formation to a 3-4-1-2/3-4-3. Without SAS, Sterling played a good number of minutes as a false striker and there were moments when Coutinho and Sterling found great chemistry. Coutinho had a real solid stretch in January and February, culminating in his winner versus Manchester City when City were at their peak downturn. It wasn’t the same Coutinho from SAS, but he was still effective enough deployed higher up the pitch that it got him a spot on the PFA Team of the year (he really didn’t deserve it if we’re being honest).
Watching Coutinho so far this season has been one of the more weirder experiences you’ll see. Gone are the days of the swashbuckling midfielder who could find passes that not many could. Instead it’s been replaced by a shot hungry monster more interested in being the Brazilian Andros Townsend. So far he’s somehow dodged criticism even though he’s produced minimally outside the screamer versus Stoke. It’s a very small sample size but Coutinho has shot 6.3 times per 90 this season and only of those shots is on target per 90. He’s has taken 33% of Liverpool’s shots this season, a staggering amount of shots for a player who is at best an erratic shooter, and at worst Andros Townsend like. Since coming to Liverpool, Coutinho has always been a poor shooter that’s not afraid to shoot, but the potency of SAS covered that up quite a good deal.
Some of what’s happened to Coutinho’s game this season isn’t his fault but rather a combinations of things that have happened around him. For a club that used to have an abundance of pace and feed off of counter attacks, that’s mostly dissipated. Teams don’t really fear being countered on by Liverpool because there’s just not that much fluidity to their game. There have been moments (first half versus Arsenal, parts of their match versus Norwich) but the club as currently constructed is only good enough to have nothing more than fleeting moments. Coutinho and Firmino overlap skill wise, Jordon Ibe is the only true winger on the squad and he kind of sucks, Joe Gomez is not a LB (he isn’t – he’s a fricking CB that’s gamely played at LB) and offers no width to balance the inside runs Firmino and Coutinho love to make.
The failings that have surrounded Coutinho have enabled his worst traits and minimized his strengths. Again, Coutinho is a very creative passer in the right environment but when there are no runners available and the £32M striker (Benteke) is still not close to looking comfortable, you’re pretty much inviting him to take it upon himself and shoot and shoot some more.
Coutinho won’t average 6.3 shots per 90 this season and if he does, the apocalypse is upon us and humanity as we know will cease to exist. But even if the number crests around 4.5-5, that’s still a net negative for Liverpool. There’s not a lot of players in the world that I would feel comfortable taking 4.5-5 shots per 90 over 2500-3000 minutes, and Coutinho is far down the list.
An example of a Coutinho like player succeeding is Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa and Coutinho are pretty similar as players, and for attacking midfielders they can retreat and collect the ball pretty quickly from rather deep areas to start transition opportunities, with both being great dribblers. Coutinho’s passing abilities (again when he wants/can pass) are probably more expansive than Kagawa’s but he’s also a more harmful shooter. Look who Kagawa has as options: Marco Reus, the criminally underrated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Those three are tailored made for a player like Kagawa and it has made him super successful once again in Dortmund (it also helps that Kagawa gets to play as a #10 again).
Philippe Coutinho is very talented but he’s also very talented in a specific way that has to be tailored correctly to make it successful both for him and the club. It’s happened before both for him and players similar to him. He’s not the type of guy where you can build an entire offense around, which is what Liverpool have kind of done through six games this season, because this is more or less what you get. Coutinho needs space and shot producing forwards to be successful. Benteke isn’t that, Sturridge is that but he’s constantly injured, and Firmino was at Hoffenheim but he also was the guy in Germany and never had to share the spotlight with a player who overlapped many of his best skills.
As Liverpool have crumbled, so has Coutinho’s overall game. There’s still loads of time to resurrect what was a fascinating career, but this iteration of Liverpool won’t be the ones to do it.