Amid an outbreak of Kloppmania, smatterings of doubt and negativity lingered. The German’s first match in charge at Liverpool provided the smallest of windows into the future at Anfield, as well as ensuring ‘gegenpressing’ has a regular place in English football’s lexicon. Yet one question in particular stood out: How would Philippe Coutinho be affected?
The Brazilian is a curious player. One of the six nominees for the Premier League’s Player of the Year award last season despite scoring just five goals and providing five assists, his is a reputation seemingly built on misconception. Another fleet-footed, mercurial South American with an eye for goal, a star with an under-appreciated work-rate but an overstated attacking output, or somewhere in between? The 23-year-old is suffering perhaps not from a crisis of confidence this season, but instead a crisis of identity.
With Steven Gerrard gone, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling sold and Daniel Sturridge perennially injured, the onus was placed more than ever on Coutinho this season. One of the more senior members of the squad – only three regular starters have spent longer in the first team (Lucas, Martin Skrtel and Jordan Henderson) – he was also seen by Brendan Rodgers as the most reliable attacking option.
It all started so well. Returning to the scene of their 6-1 humbling by Stoke at the end of last season was a Liverpool who had learnt their lessons. Rodgers displayed a more reserved tactical approach, but Coutinho reprised his familiar role as chief creator. No player on either side had more shots, no visiting player made more key passes, and only James Milner shared passes with more of his team-mates.
A well-rounded individual performance was capped with a goal, another sublime Coutinho strike from long range. It represents his only goal this season, while he has added only two more assists.
Back to that game against Spurs, perhaps Coutinho’s most underwhelming of the campaign. With Klopp’s emphasis on pressing, the Brazilian’s perceived strengths as a free-flowing creator of chances had supposedly been nullified in favour of running around a lot. In the words of Daniel Storey in his 16 Conclusions from the game:
‘One game doesn’t indicate a trend, but is there a chance that Klopp could inflict a form of Jose-itis on Coutinho, whereby attacking midfielders are starved of creativity through the demand for hard work? He can speak to Brazil team-mates Oscar and Willian for details.’
Indeed, it was very much the common consensus. Coutinho was to suffer the same fate as his compatriots over at Chelsea, with work-rate prioritised over flair. Klopp’s system could impinge on his brightest talent.
Or perhaps not. Omitting his red-card related 53 minutes against West Ham, Coutinho had completed an average of 10.09km in six Premier League games before visiting White Hart Lane. In his first test under Klopp, Coutinho ran 10.54km. To suggest that the Brazilian will struggle with the added workload is a myth.
It’s difficult to examine whether Coutinho really is struggling for form at all. In an era where statistics are able to ignite debate as to whether Robert Lewandowski is any better than Jamie Vardy, Coutinho is a strange case of a player whose numbers do him a significant disservice. One goal and two assists in eight games is not a tally you would normally associate with an attacking midfielder linked with Barcelona, but Coutinho is not your normal midfielder.
Under Rodgers, Coutinho was given a looser role to conjure a spontaneous moment of magic. Described by his former manager as “the brain in our team, the continuity player” in pre-season, the Brazilian was used in four different positions in the opening 11 matches. Coutinho was entrusted not only as the link between midfield and attack, but also the fulcrum of both.
You can add ‘goalscorer’ to Coutinho’s ‘to do’ list under Rodgers. Only Alexis Sanchez (45) has attempted more shots on goal this season than the Brazilian (39), but Sanchez has scored six to Coutinho’s one. The next highest Liverpool player is James Milner with just 14.
Unsurprisingly, it proved too heavy a burden. There are few better managers at handling in-form players than Rodgers, and Coutinho was a prime example. Within one month last season the Brazilian scored sublime long-range goals against Bolton, Southampton and Manchester City, coinciding with an 11-game unbeaten run for his club. Rodgers’ mistake was to then expect Coutinho to be able to maintain that exception to the rule.
Klopp could well be of greater benefit, adding consistency to Coutinho’s considerable arsenal. Comparisons with the transition made by Christian Eriksen under Mauricio Pochettino are apt, with the Dane adding more maturity and responsibility to his game under a more demanding and tactically rigid manager.
Yet Klopp’s first task might be to persuade Coutinho that he does not need to be all things to all men. Having had at least three attempts on goal in all his previous Premier League games this season, in his first game under Klopp he had just one. Having had 87 shots and scoring just six goals since the start of last season, that’s no bad thing. Recognising and focusing on your forte is a sign of strength, not weakness.
“Coutinho? Do you not think he can play better football than today? Of course, he can,” said Klopp after the Tottenham draw. “We don’t have to sprinkle magical dust on them ‘and now you can play football.’ They know how to play. We just have to create a situation where it is possible to do this.”
If any manager is equipped to do just that, it’s Klopp. Rather than suffocate his talent, the German is more likely to refine it.