At the end of August, Liverpool fans had good reason to feel optimistic. Yes, there was the unfortunate late equalizer on opening day to Watford, but other than that, it was seven points from nine in the league, and sheer domination over Hoffenheim to qualify for just the second Champions League Group Stage this decade. And we were keeping want-away star, Philippe Coutinho.
And then September and October happened. Three wins, five draws, three losses in all competitions. Welcome back, Phil?
Liverpool’s November and December were much better, and just in time to finally see our talented #10 depart.
A Spanish Giant robbed us of yet another Latin talent. The loss of Philippe Coutinho hurts, and we’ll be left thinking “what could have been?” if the Little Magician stuck around. And it will remind of us of the very recent memory of losing Luis Suarez, also to Barcelona.
However, we would do well to not compare these two transfers too closely. When Suarez left us, he was a top three striker in the world. He was scoring goals for fun (to the tune of 31 league goals in 33 appearances), lifting the whole team up around him, very nearly to a title. Not only that, but he afforded time and space for an in-form (and mostly healthy!) Daniel Sturridge and a young Raheem Sterling to create a devastating front three. He was the lynchpin of the attack, and losing him was something from which Brendan Rodgers could never recover.
Coutinho is a different case. He might be our “best” player, simply in terms of raw footballing skill. But he’s hardly our most important. In fact, he might not even crack the top three. And after Naby Keita comes in this summer, he might have not cracked the top five.
The difference between “skill” and “importance” should not be downplayed in a Jurgen Klopp side. Klopp talks about the press as his “number 10,” which, it must be said, diminishes the role of an actual number 10, such as Phil. Players such as Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana (when fully fit) set the press, and are rightfully the first names on the teamsheet. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have proved vital this season and last at stretching play, and springing quick and devastating counterattacks.
For all of his immense skill, Coutinho neither fit into Klopp’s system as a winger, nor as a midfielder. He was never pacy enough to stretch play as a winger—preferring the ball into his feet rather than into space.
And his pressing and desire to track back were subpar in comparison to Klopp’s other attackers and midfielders. We remember Alberto Moreno’s howler against his former club Sevilla, but it’s easy to forget who was playing directly ahead of him (and who was yanked at the exact same time), Philippe Coutinho. Early in the second half, Sevilla exploited the space behind Coutinho, and in front of Albi, to great effect. To the casual observer, these are easy things to overlook. To Sevilla’s coaching staff (as well as our own), it was abundantly clear where the problem area was.
But what about Phil’s Magic™? Couts loved his screamers, didn’t he? But for all of his long-range efforts, how many of his chances ended up in the Kop, and not the back of the net? How many times were there better options available than to cut in on his right and have a pop from distance? Far too often, we have to admit, if we’re being honest.
In early November, I posed the question whether Liveprool were better without Coutinho. At the time, we were averaging just 1.25 points per game (ppg) when he donned the liver bird across his chest. And we were averaging 2.3 ppg with out him.
Now? We’re averaging 2.46 ppg without him, 1.74 with. The former number, over the course of a season, earns us ~93 points, a league title in the vast majority of seasons. The latter? Roughly 66 points. Have fun in the Europa League.
In November, I said I wasn’t even sure about the argument I was making. I’m still not completely sure. You want Coutinho in the side, because even if he isn’t “a Klopp player,” he is boss, and boss players routinely do boss things. But if he can be replaced by an attacker who can better fit into Klopp’s system? That would likely leave us all going “Phil who?” Alternatively, even if he isn’t “replaced” as such, this is still a very good team, and one that isn’t reliant on one player to score goals and get results.
One last thing before I wrap up. Let’s talk about silverware. Klopp talks about wanting players to help push the train, not be passengers in it. In this regard, Couts leaves us with the dubious distinction of having never won a medal with Liverpool. He came close several times. League runners up in 13/14. League Cup and Europa League finalists in 15/16. And several semifinal exits, two in the League Cup, and one in the FA Cup. A better player—a true great—would have helped us over the finish line, at least once.
Coutinho is a great player. He will win things at Barcelona, if only by default. But Liverpool very well could be better off without him, especially if Klopp reinvests as well as he already has.