Since Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat to Red Star Belgrade, there have been a number of theories thrown around about the club’s poor form this term.
I italicise poor form because with Liverpool unbeaten in the Premier League and two points off top, while being in a very good position to qualify from the Champions League, there’s a fair debate as to whether there’s anything to worry about.
But while the table is pleasing on the eye, Liverpool’s football has not been. The media has typecast us a blockbuster, exciting side to watch, but Reds will know that bar a few periods of play (namely the opening minutes against PSG), it’s been pretty woeful in terms of entertainment this season.
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We can live with this all campaign if the results are good, but when Liverpool lose to a poor side in an important game, questions will be asked.
Some think Zeljko Buvac’s exit has directly affected our offensive tactics, but this is only speculation. How do we know exactly what happens at Melwood? There are suggestions that Mo Salah and Sadio Mane are only playing for themselves. Rubbish. The odd moron is even claiming Jurgen Klopp has lost it…
But the answer is more obvious: we’re missing Coutinho – who less than 12 months ago – was Liverpool’s best player.
The Brazilian is a world-class operator, who in the 18 months before his exit, had taken his and our game to another level. Before he joined Barcelona, Coutinho was on 12 goals and ten assists in 20 games last season, all while openly desperate to leave and nursing the infamous back injury.
We got huge money for him (£142m) and immediately reinvested a chunk of it on Virgil van Dijk, which transformed our defence, and some more on top players in the summer – but only now are we really feeling the effects of his departure.
The business was good. It had to be done. But it doesn’t mean it hasn’t hurt us down the line.
Immediately after we sold Coutinho, we experienced an uplift – which felt like the club rallied together in his absence to prove we were ok without…
We battered Porto away from home, beat Manchester City 5-1 on aggregate in the Champions League and put in the most extraordinary display in the semi-final first-leg victory over AS Roma. These performances were so impressive that they acted as universal confirmation that not only were Liverpool not missing Phil, but we’d somehow improved…
Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were enjoying the goalscoring burden and doing so with incredible regularity, especially the Egyptian who ended the campaign on 44 goals.
But our creativity was very much three-pronged. The midfield won the ball, gave it to the attack, who made something brilliant happen. We’d become less predictable in terms of who played our final ball, because there was no longer anyone capable of playing it. Liverpool simply got it forward and one of the front-three took responsibility. That’s been the plan this season, but it hasn’t worked quite so well.
It’s all very well when the players are full of confidence, fitness and everything’s going our way, but football never stays like this.
This season, it’s just not coming quite as easily for them. Our workhorse midfield is rightly receiving criticism for a failure to either dominate possession or play exciting passes.
Salah looks isolated; frustrated and in need of a creative partner to feed him. Firmino’s on-field relationship with Coutinho was spellbinding, you’ll remember, so he’s undeniably missing our former no.10 – who was also his best friend at the club. Mane loves the ball fizzed into him and is expert at one-twos that see him round a fullback and heading to the byline. None of our current crop can produce those like Coutinho did.
It’s blatantly obvious we miss him – and this is alright… It’s not a detriment to the current crop who wanted to stay. Overall, we have benefitted from his exit in the transformation of our backline via the transfer market – but the creative gap in the side is becoming more obvious.
But what is the solution? In Xherdan Shaqiri, Liverpool have signed a potential genius who needs to be unleashed. Klopp must realise it’s time to deploy a midfield double pivot which solidifies the centre of the park and enables Shaq to play freely.
Salah especially is a much better player when the Swiss maestro is on the field. On top of Shaqiri, we need Naby Keita to show us what he’s truly capable of. The Guinean was without exaggeration the best player in Germany in 2016/17, as a 21-year-old, and his highlight reel (and Bundesliga statistics) proves he’s special.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played a big role in covering for Coutinho, albeit with a different stylistic approach (blood and thunder over guile and vision) but the Englishman is unavailable this season due to injury.
Liverpool managed to ride the wave of positivity without Coutinho for many months, but it’s now time for his creativity to be directly replaced. If Shaqiri and Keita cannot provide it, it’s imperative we consider the January transfer window.
After all, Klopp was willing to spend nearly £60m on Nabil Fekir – so really – what’s changed?