‘It’s not only how you handle the pressure of moving to Barcelona that denotes you worthy of the shirt, but how you react to the disappointment of not moving to Barcelona,’ I wrote in September, suggesting that the true test of Philippe Coutinho’s mettle came in staying at Liverpool. Could he follow Luis Suarez, Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas in staring into the face of transfer disappointment and respond by being simply brilliant?
Six goals and six assists in 11 Premier League and Champions League starts later, Coutinho has achieved the pretty incredible double of remaining both Barcelona target and Liverpool hero. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Coutinho has been both unimpeachable in his attitude and dynamic enough to remain one of the most valuable players in Europe. This is how you react to summer disappointment; you become winter’s finest.
There will be those who wonder how much of Coutinho’s motivation is wrapped up in Brazil and the World Cup, but Liverpool fans should not waste too much time pondering that conundrum. What really matters is that Coutinho’s contributions are helping Liverpool towards their own credible double of a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League knock-out stages. If this season boasts those twin successes and ends with £100m in the transfer kitty from Coutinho, everybody should be happy and the man himself should be waved off with a smile.
Against Brighton on Saturday he was sensational, scoring with one sumptuous free-kick under the wall, setting up two Liverpool goals, having a hand in another and forcing the last from defender Lewis Dunk. Jurgen Klopp described him as “very good” but we prefer the Liverpool Echo’s description of ‘utterly, utterly brilliant’. They also said he was ‘on a completely different level to anyone else’ and that is surely one of the reasons we are probably seeing his final season in England.
Philippe Coutinho vs Brighton:
5 successful dribbles
1 big chance created
Brazilian magic. 🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/j9NTd1A4dT
— max riegel (@max_riegel) December 2, 2017
That Brighton performance was probably his finest of the campaign – narrowly beating the 3-2 win over Leicester – but the statistics show a player actually improved from last season. The naysayers will say Coutinho’s injuries blot his copybook, but we can only judge the Brazilian on the games he has played. Over his eight Premier League appearances this season compared to last, his per-90 key passes have increased from 2.6 to 3.1 and his successful dribbles from 2.8 to 3.8. Instead of letting his head drop, he is lifting it high to drive past defenders and look for teammates.
Only eight Premier League games into his campaign – while some of his rivals have played 13, 14 or even 15 matches – Coutinho has joined Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku, Leroy Sane, Kevin de Bruyne and Xherdan Shaqiri as the only six players to have notched four Premier League goals and assists. And all this while adjusting to a deeper role to accommodate the pace of Mo Salah. The transition has been almost seamless.
‘Going forward, what sort of Coutinho is Jurgen Klopp going to have around the place?’ asked Graeme Souness on September. A really bloody good one, as it happens.