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Alternative Thinking

As Liverpool have finally hit on a formula that works, the embattled manager must take some credit for changing his ideas and putting together a system in which his players have excelled.

When Phil said he was happy to carry the team, Alberto may have misunderstood.
When Phil said he was happy to carry the team, Alberto may have misunderstood.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There's a scene in True Detective where Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey's Rustin Cohle are observing a Christian preacher address a crowd of enthusiastically devout rural types in a marquee. Hart, a wily and experienced local homicide cop, is still adjusting to the aloof detachment of his new partner and seems equal parts bemused and affronted by Cohle's pointedly bleak world view. Given to casually expounding on concepts like the ontological fallacy at the heart of mankind's existence, Cohle is a frustrating and irksome enigma to his partner -- all maddening theory and no empathy.

As he observes the assembled worshippers, Rust ponders what he sees as the pathetic need of humanity for the reassurance of a guiding deity. His tone is disdainful and superior and his language is that of a jaded academic. Frankly, in the parlance of my teenage daughter, he seems like kind of a douche. Hart's reaction to his colleague's observations is revealing. It's clear that Marty is an intelligent and insightful detective but he takes umbrage at Rust's thesis, as much for the manner of its expression as for the ideas therein.

With a self-righteous and somewhat defensive local pride, Hart insists that while he may not use as many "ten dollar words" as Cohle, he is no less capable of comprehending the situation whilst simultaneously noting glaring contradictions in his partner's pompous pontifications. Ironically, as the series develops, we see the two men's approaches dovetail in a most effective fashion. In a nutshell, then, there are various ways to approach a problem and the fact that they are different need not exclude the possibility of either prosperous cooperation or individual success.

At Liverpool Football Club this season, that concept is beginning to take hold at  last. Initially, the manager persevered for an unwise amount of time with a flawed defensive system that was being implemented on the field by personnel who were frankly incapable of the task. For too long, as the high aspirations of the pre-season burned to the ground, fans were faced with the appalling vista of clowncars defending by the Redmen's rearguard. Finally, and in a move that had more than a faint whiff of desperation about it, Rodgers moved to a back three, introducing the imperious duo of Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho as ball-playing powerhouses to flank the more agrarian style of Martin Skrtel. The result has been stunning. The team can defend proficiently without sacrificing the attacking impetus. Halcyon days, indeed.

Alongside the newfound defensive competence, there has been a marked improvement in the team's ability to force the issue in the opposition's penalty area, proving that the two objectives need not be mutually exclusive. The thrillingly gifted Raheem Sterling, on point once more in last night's victory, has been instrumental in that, but the chief architect of Liverpool's attacking prowess has been one Philippe Coutinho.

At the Macron stadium, against Bolton, Coutinho was the stand-out player, an honour he regularly claims these days despite persistently stellar turns from the likes of Can, Sterling and Sakho. This diminutive maestro is a unique talent, with only David Silva of a similar ilk in the Premier League. Sterling, who scored a superb equaliser courtesy of an absurdly delicious Can pass, is in no doubt as to who the team's key man currently is.

"Philippe has that magic to turn the game on its head and that's what he did tonight," Sterling said of the Brazilian. "It was great individual skill and a great finish. We had a few chances to put the game away, but we didn't take them. A few of those chances came to me. So it was a great team effort to stick in the game and get the win at the end. When we went 1-0 down and we hit the woodwork so many times, I was thinking: 'It's not our day'.

"But I think the boys stuck in really well," he continued. "I just saw the ball come over and saw that I was free. I watched the 'keeper and put it through his legs and I was happy to get on the scoresheet. The most important thing was to win the game and that's what we've done. We can go on to Crystal Palace now [in the fifth round] and hopefully nick a win there."

The Liverpool manager has had ample reason to justifiably praise Coutinho of late. His incessant prompting passes and penetrative slaloming runs into the heart of opposition defences have been the impetus for Liverpool's attacking momentum. The manager must take some credit for the improvements in this department of the pitch also, having seen the error of his early season ways. No longer is the attack built around a comparatively immobile pivot. These days, as it was last season, the forward line is a beautifully fluid unit, always looking for the quick pass, always with bodies available to receive the ball. The attack, however, does not simply attack. It's that idea of prosperously co-existing methods again. Each forward in Rodgers' side is admirably dutiful in their efforts when not in possession of the ball and Coutinho, with his tireless running, is an exemplar.

"You would pay money to watch the kid," Rodgers pointed out, seemingly forgetting that people do. "He is a great role model for lots of technical players in this country. He will become world class in the next couple of years. Luis Suarez grew and grew in this team and I can see Coutinho falling in the same way, although he might not be as prolific. Signing a new deal shows he is really committed to Liverpool and his development. We have got a great habit at the minute which is winning games. You can't question the character. They have shown a real strong mentality in my time here."

With the likes of Coutinho, Sterling, Can and Sakho happy to embrace the twin duties of attack and ball recovery, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool are set fair as they maintain a challenge on three fronts. No doubt there will be dark hours as the remainder of the season unfolds but moments of ecstatic light, like seeing the Brazilian hit a shot that didn't drag across the face of the goal and instead dipped gloriously under the bar, will more than atone for any heartache. Two cups and Champions League football are attainable. Liverpool, with their current blend of attack and defence will hope that alchemy can yield success. Marty Hart would approve.

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