Rather than generically opening this article with a few rhetorical questions and delicately biased statistics (they’ll come later on) which surreptitiously support my argument, I’ll get straight to the point, literally, with the appropriate, overt nature it demands: Philippe Coutinho is a fantastic footballer and Liverpool are missing him.
Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Christian Eriksen and Juan Mata: whilst all possessing a huge amount of talent, and being similar stylistically to Liverpool’s injured number 10, there is one other thing these attacking instigators have in common with Coutinho: their recent absences (whether enforced or not, Mr Mourinho) or additions have subsequently had a predictably positive or negative effect on their respective teams. Unfortunately, in the reds’ case, it is an injury to Coutinho, picked up in the second half of their draw at Swansea, which is noticeably upsetting the balance of their side.
Liverpool yesterday went second in the Premier League with a three-one win against Sunderland – why the negativity then? Well, please stick with me.
Firstly, I prefer to look at performances rather than results, especially early in the season. The number of fans I see who incredibly manage to evaluate their team’s 90-minute display by looking up the result after not watching any of the match is, quite frankly, disheartening. And it’s a large chunk of the underlying reason for England’s failure on the international stage – but I’ll resist from delving into that dark hole for now.
Back to Liverpool.
Performances, particularly since Philippe Coutinho’s withdrawal against Swansea, have been disjointed, to say the least: a far cry from the tail end of last season, when the reds consistently controlled games from start to finish. This campaign, contrastingly, Liverpool have been reliant on the individual brilliance of Daniel Sturridge and, more recently, Luis Suarez to propel them to the top end of the league.
So what is going wrong?
Well, balance and fluidity are two key ingredients in the making of a successful, attractive and possession-based side. Whichever formation the team is deploying, whether it be a four-two-three-one or a three-four-one-two (both trialled by Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers this season), it is vital all of the players are prepared to contribute to more than one phase of play, and that they are linked throughout. This way, no segment of the team is isolated and accurate passes are viable. However, recently, the reds have been static in their movement, creating gaps between each part of their team: goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders and strikers. This, in my opinion, is where things are going wrong. And Philippe Coutinho’s absence is the catalyst of the problem.
For the last two games, and perhaps significantly since the return of Luis Suarez, Brendan Rodgers has switched to a system I mentioned earlier: the three-four-one-two. Clearly, this alteration has been manufactured to accommodate the vibrant Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez as a central pair: a partnership which, as was evident on Sunday, looks set to flourish. But, of course, football isn’t all about strikers; to repeat what I have already said – balance is key to a team. Currently, playing just behind the reds’ front two, ‘in the hole’, is Victor Moses. This role is vital to any system it exists in; the player must constantly drop into pockets of space in midfield, look to link his side’s attacks by offering a passing option to his teammates, and play penetrative, attacking passes if they are available when he is on the ball. Moses, though, is naturally a winger, not a playmaker. He prefers to use his explosive pace to run at, and in behind, opposing defences, rather than look for a clever pass. These tendencies are highlighted by the fact he has performed 3.3 dribbles per game this season (by far the most of any Liverpool player) and is just the 12th most frequent passer in the reds’ squad, playing 28.7 per game. Additionally, and the ultimate reason he does not suit a central attacking midfield capacity, is his lack of instinctiveness and desire to vacate his offensive position to combine with more defensively positioned colleagues. Criticising the Nigerian would be punitive though, simply because of his unfamiliarity with the role and the fact he is covering for a man who seems tailor-made for the position, and should thrive in it when he returns from injury: Philippe Coutinho.
For this reason, I’m confident you will see a marked improvement in Liverpool’s style when the Brazilian returns; a central role, tucked in behind the dynamic duo of Suarez and Sturridge, bows appropriately to all of Coutinho’s qualities. The reds’ subtlety and serenity in possession should also be restored, as Brendan Rodgers’ number-10 intelligently drops deep to link play with defenders and midfielders.
Results for Liverpool have been good. Expect performances to follow, soon.