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The Curious Case of Liverpool Without Philippe Coutinho

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Liverpool’s form without the talented midfielder is fantastic. But the underlying numbers raise more questions than answers.

Liverpool v West Ham United - Premier League
Way to ruin a cool photo, Joel.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A belated Snakemas Day to all the readers at TLO! Quietly, without most of us even noticing, Liverpool have now played two more games without Philippe Coutinho, than with him.*

I’m not the first observer to note how much better Liverpool have performed without Coutinho (although, I have been making this argument since November), and this tweet was doing the rounds this week:

Although we count the matches slightly differently, the stats are largely similar. And moreover, when you dig deeper, beyond mere ppg, our underlying stats with and without Phil are practically identical. The stats I used are courtesy of Five Thirty Eight, and a full rundown of the stats and methodology can be found here. He’s a brief summation of my not-at-all-obsessive Coutinho spreadsheet**:

At first glance, it’s surprising how Liverpool appear better—on average—with Coutinho, in almost every category but ppg! Our expected goals scored are marginally higher, and the non-shot expected goals are better on both ends of the pitch. Moreover, the level of competition we faced with and without Coutinho is nearly identical.

Before lingering too long on this apparent paradox, I’d like to present two more charts, showing the frequency at which Liverpool score and concede goals per match:

I think this is really important. Simply, Liverpool have been much more consistently having multiple-goal matches without Coutinho. Phil might have helped us hang 7 on opponents (twice!), but he also, apparently, hindered us: helping opponents keep our attack to 0 or 1 goals on 9 separate occasions (nearly half his total appearances), compared to only 3 without him (and one of those shutouts was the 10-man defeat to Manchester City).

This seems to be the key. Statistically, there is not nearly as much difference in the expected ppg between scoring 4 and 7 goals, but a big statistical difference between scoring 1 and 2 (or between 2 and 3). According to the book The Numbers Game, Premier League sides can expect just over 1 ppg with their first goal, just over 2 ppg for their second, and over 2.5 ppg for their third. Each goal after that third gets a team closer to 3 ppg, but only marginally so. By consistently putting up 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, and even a 5, the Reds sans Phil are giving themselves a big statistical advantage over a side that was struggling to score that second goal in half of their matches.

As you can see, defensively Liverpool with or without Phil are shockingly similar. But even here, the Phil-less Reds have essentially swapped a cleansheet for a match in which we conceded only one (AKA “The Liverpool Cleansheet”). To return to The Numbers Game, the difference between a cleansheet and conceding one is roughly 1 ppg, down from just under 2.5 ppg to around 1.5 ppg. For most teams, conceding 2’s and 3’s is a problem (the expected ppg is around .6 and .3, respectively), but on balance Liverpool without Phil has fared better than should be expected here (with multiple 2-2 draws, a 3-3 draw, and even 4-2 and 4-3 wins against Hoffenheim and City).

So, what’s the difference between these two sides? Why is Liverpool a better team without this admittedly extremely talented footballer? One of the theories I put forth back in November was Coutinho’s seemingly unbreakable habit of attempting low-percentage worldies from outside of the box. Indeed, it appears that it wasn’t just these efforts, but the frequency in which he tried them. This effect would be further exacerbated if Coutinho came in on the wing for Sadio Mane, who generally chooses much better shots to take on, and therefore higher xG per shot. And when playing behind the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Mane, taking a shot from distance instead of picking out one of his teammates was likely not the best option.

Occasionally, it would all click. We saw it twice against Maribor and Spartak Moscow. Seven goals is nothing to sniff at, and in the latter, Coutinho recorded his first (and last) hat trick with the club. Without Coutinho, Liverpool scored three goals against Maribor. But those three goals were more than enough to take all three points (as they generally are).

Even when Coutinho found the net with his magic, it often wasn’t enough on its own to help his side capture all three points, as was the case in the consecutive 1-1 draws against Moscow and Newcastle.

In fact, in all three matches where Coutinho scored a goal, but did not record an assist, Liverpool drew all three. In the seven matches where he had a goal and an assist or two (curiously, he had no matches where he only had an assist), Liverpool took the maximum amount of points each and every time. This fits the numbers we’ve seen above: it was very much feast or famine with Liverpool when Coutinho was on the pitch. And his record in the remaining nine where he neither scored nor assisted? 1 win, 6 draws, and 2 losses.

That one win was against Leicester City in Coutinho’s last match with Liverpool, when Mo Salah took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored two world-class goals despite being hacked to pieces by the Foxes. Something tells me that the lads on the pitch knew better than to rely on a bit of magic from a player that was out the door. Instead, they gave the ball to Salah, and let him work his magic from inside the box, instead of Phil from outside of it.

To me, all of this points to a player who was unequivocally brilliant, even unplayable at times, but who ultimately cost his side points on far too many occasions. Liverpool’s form seemed to closely follow Phil’s while he was here this season. When he was on it, so were the Reds. When he wasn’t? Neither were we. Far too often Coutinho would throw away big opportunities, or perhaps his teammates were looking to him to score and/or provide the perfect pass. Either way, the team suffered when he wasn’t on it, and has since thrived—producing consistently brilliant performances—without him.

He scored worldies just often enough to make you, me, the pundits, and even his teammates forget about all the times he blasted it 30 rows back into the Kop. Of course, Liverpool still have players who will take a pop from outside of the box. That isn’t the problem. Sometimes they do go in and it’s good to keep defenders and keepers on their toes. But those shots are not as frequent, and it is more likely that Liverpool will now choose to keep the ball, or play it in to one of the forwards in a better position.

Are we definitively better without him? The final answer will come at the end of the season, but so far it looks like the answer is an emphatic “yes.” This team doesn’t need worldies from outside the box or breathtaking through balls to unlock a defense (both of which were too few and far between to help week-in and week-out). Instead, they need each and every player working together to press, attack, and defend as a unit.

To return to the very first line of this article: most of us didn’t even realize we had reached this milestone. That is as strong of an indication as any that we don’t really miss him. If the Reds continue to pick up results at roughly 2.3 ppg, as they have done without Coutinho all season, they will finish the season on 80 points, qualified in the Champions League, and likely in second place. If Klopp can manage 2.3 ppg over the entire league campaign next year, Liverpool will finish on 87 or 88 points, which is usually good enough for a league title.

Exciting times are ahead. I think we can just about put the past to bed.

*When I started compiling these stats, I counted his 15-minute sub cameo against Sevilla (his first game back) in the “games played without Coutinho” column. I still think this is a fair assessment, so I’m keeping it (not that he deserves the benefit of the doubt!)

**ppg=points per game, xG=expected goals, xGA=expected goals against, SPI=soccer power index