I see you. Yes you. Rolling your eyes, and cracking your knuckles in preparation for a tirade against Philippe “The Snake” Coutinho in the comments section. But give me a chance to stake my claim, and defend my argument.
Philippe Coutinho should start against Manchester City.
I know, I know. The Brazilian is high our our collective shit list after he took every scrap of good will he had so meticulously created over 4.5 years at Anfield and chucked them into the fire. You’re mad. I’m mad. Jürgen Klopp is so mad he’s dialing fourth officials in the middle of the night just to have someone to yell at.
But none of that changes the fact that we have a Coutinho problem that needs to be resolved. He’s too good of a player to let rot in the reserves. And even if we wanted to let him rot in the reserves to prove a point (and to cut off our nose to spite our face, #spitewins), that could put Liverpool in legal trouble, allowing the want-away midfielder to get away, for free, after FIFA annuls his contract.
Coutinho almost certainly will be included in the matchday 18. He’s too good of a player not to. The only question then becomes when, not if, he plays.
Let’s, for a second, imagine if he starts on the bench. The Coutinho Narrative™ will likely garner as much attention as the match itself. How many times will the coverage cut away from the action on the pitch to put the playmaker on screen? What’s the appropriate number of over/under minutes that the commentators will be discussing the Coutinho problem at length? Whatever the number, I’d bet on the over. And please don’t make a drinking game out of it. This is a match I’d rather be conscious for. And if Liverpool lose? Rightly or wrongly, there’s going to be a lot of second-guessing Klopp.
But what if he starts? First of all, let’s just talk about Phil’s phenomenal record against City. He’s scored 5 goals (more than against any other opponent) in 7 matches. City would be quite pleased to see this Brazilian on the bench, and for as long as possible. Second, his inclusion—especially in a midfield three—will be a new wrinkle that City probably will have not fully prepared for. And there’s no one else in the squad who can better play through balls in behind City’s defense for the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to latch onto. And there will likely be a lot of space for those two to run into.
Moreover, that narrative of “how do you reintegrate Coutinho?” will be out the window. He’ll be back. He’ll be back in one of the biggest matches of the season. Move along pundits, nothing to see here.
I’ll admit, it is a risk. The player did not have a full preseason because of his, eh-hem, “back injury.” He might not be fit to go more than 60 minutes. But imagine the response from the traveling Kop after putting in a good shift. They’ll have no choice but to support him, especially on the road. We’ll be back singing Coutinho-oh-oh, galvanizing the supporters, and moving along with the rest of our season together.
I’ll also admit that it’s probably unfair to either of the players who he is likely to replace, Emre Can or Georginio Wijnaldum. Can has been consistently the best midfielder of the three so far, and Gini seems to have shaken off the early-season rust and really hit his stride. And as a unit, Can-Gini-Hendo has started working like an actual midfield. But at his best, Coutinho is a better player than either. And, Coutinho has a knack for stepping up in the biggest games, doubly so against City. Both Wijnaldum and Can will have their chances throughout the season, including in a week’s time when Liverpool kickoff their Champions League campaign. But one of them can, and should, make way this week for the betterment of the squad as a whole.
Lastly, this move could go a long way for Klopp to restore the relationship he’s built with Coutinho. It would be an acknowledgement that the reason he couldn’t go is because of big games like this. We didn’t keep Phil to let him ride the pine or rot in the reserves. We didn’t keep Phil simply for the joy of telling Barcelona to get fucked (as fun as that was). We kept Phil to help us win big games. If he plays, and if we can get a positive result out of the difficult tie, the media narrative is no longer “What about Phil?” but rather, “What about Liverpool?”
Saturday is an opportunity for Liverpool to lay down a marker, and announce themselves as legitimate title contenders this season. Philippe Coutinho can help us toward that end. Starting Coutinho would put the reintegration question out of our minds, and replace it with the questions that really matters: how do we go about winning big matches? And how do we score all the goals?
Welcome back, Philippe Coutinho. And up the Reds.