You know I’m not one for the hot takes. So in case there is any doubt, let me preface this by saying a) I’m not a statistician, and b) I’m not even convinced by the argument I’m about to make. But stick with me before telling me all the ways I’m wrong in the comments below.
We all know how great a footballer Philippe Coutinho is. His touch, his dribbling, his face-melting worldies from outside the box. We’ve seen it all. There’s a reason why Barcelona lost their shit trying to get him in the summer (and why they’ll almost certainly be back).
However, Liverpool, undoubtedly, have played their best football without the Brazilian star. So far this season because of injuries—real or imaginary—Coutinho has played 8 competitive matches, give or take a 15 minute cameo immediately after Liverpool conceded an equalizer to Sevilla in the opening Group Stage match of the Champions League. To give Phil the benefit of the doubt (which he may not deserve), I’ve notched that Sevilla appearance in the 10 competitive matches Liverpool have played without.
So how is Liverpool sans Coutinho compared to Liverpool with him?
In 8 matches with Phil, the Reds have only 2 wins (Maribor, and Leicester), 4 draws (Burnley, Spartak Moscow, Newcastle, and Manchester United), and 2 losses (Leicester, and Tottenham). They have a +3 goal differential (1.75 goals for per game, 1.38 goals against), and averaging 1.25 points per game (obviously I’m including knock-out games such as the League Cup and Champions League qualifiers in this calculation).
In the 10 matches without the magician, Liverpool have 7 wins (Hoffenheim twice, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Huddersfield, Maribor, and West Ham), 2 draws, and 1 loss (admittedly a bad one to Manchester City). Without Phil the Reds manage a +12 goal differential (2.6 goals for per game, 1.4 goals against), and an impressive 2.3 points per game.
This is all pretty rudimentary, back-of-the-envelope stuff, admittedly. Plus, the sample size is very small. But I think there are some interesting things to note. For one, our leaky defense produces consistently poor numbers across the board, conceding goals at nearly an identical rate. Leaky defense is going to leak. But on the flip side, Liverpool are averaging nearly one extra goal per match without Coutinho. And keep in mind, Coutinho was in the side that beat Maribor 7-0, and was out of the side that lost to City 5-0. Without those two outliers, the numbers look even worse for Phil.
It’s a curious situation, made all the more so by the fact that Coutinho has contributed when he’s on the pitch. In eight(ish) appearances so far, he has 4 goals and 3 assists. If he can stay healthy the rest of the season(take care of that back! remember to lift with your legs!), he would be on pace to have his best return in Red yet.
But we don’t care about Phil setting personal bests unless it helps the team win, and it appears that he’s not being particularly helpful in that regard.
Coutinho is many things, but he’s not what you’d call a prototypical Klopp player. When played on the wing he’s not going to stretch play the way a Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would. When played centrally or in a midfield three he’s not going to press the way an Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, or Georginio Wijnaldum would. With a system that is so reliant on pressing, one week link can drastically reduce the effectiveness of the whole unit.
Moreover, recent matches without Phil have highlighted another shortcoming of the player: his lack of patience. Yes, his face-melting worldies have won us points in the past, but how many times has one of his attempted worldies ended an otherwise promising build-up? And we have seen Coutinho become impatient time and again as a Liverpool attempt to breakdown a defensive side, thus increasing the likelihood of attempted heroics, instead of attempting to play in teammates or recycling possession.
Philippe Coutinho’s talent as a footballer is undeniable. And perhaps it is unfair to use such a small sample size, across a variety of competitions, no less. Also complicating the narrative, injuries, suspensions, and “injuries”—both concerning Phil and his teammates—have likely altered Klopp’s preseason plans. It seemed clear that Klopp was planning on setting up the team with Phil in the center of the park, playing his trademarked through balls to Salah and Mane on the wings, scoring all the goals. But Mane and Coutinho have hardly played together this season, meaning that the “Fab Four” remains merely theoretical at this juncture.
We will have to see how this continues to unfold this season. Hopefully Klopp & Co. are looking at these issues and trying to figure out how to best resolve this Coutinho paradox. Getting Mane and Lallana back after the break will be a big boost in playing the way we want to play, and should allow us to look much closer to Klopp’s preseason vision for this Liverpool side.
On balance, I want boss players doing boss things for Liverpool, and Coutinho certainly fits that mold. However, how we best deploy that boss player is a mystery this team needs to solve.