It seems a ludicrous thing to say about a player subject to rejected bids north of £100m, enough to make him the second most expensive player in the history of the game, but Philippe Coutinho does not have a natural place in Liverpool’s team.
Before the wails of derision begin, an explanation. That is not to say that Coutinho should not start if all Liverpool’s players are fit, nor that he is not an excellent footballer, but neither of those equate to having a ‘natural’ place. Coutinho is a No. 10 in a team that Jurgen Klopp believes performs best in a 4-3-3 formation. The 4-3-3, it goes without saying, does not utilise a No. 10. There is no round hole for Coutinho’s peg.
Klopp has even said as much. “Think about the passes you have to make to get a player in a No 10 role in a position where he can play the genius pass,” he said as recently as September 2016. “Counter-pressing lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter pressing situation. That shows why it’s so important.”
For Klopp’s preferred style, it is the advanced playmaker or the pressing, not both. In that battle of strategies, there is only one winner. Pressing is the one element of Klopp’s managerial style that will never change.
Coutinho’s excellence means that he has proved himself useful in alternative roles to his obvious fit. Last season he was used largely as a wide forward on the left, regularly tucking inside to allow James Milner to overlap from left-back or Georginio Wijnaldum to do the same from central midfield, making arched runs around Coutinho. The Brazilian flourished as Liverpool’s top league goalscorer with 13 and their top assist provider too.
Yet ahead of this season, the talk was of Coutinho being moved again. The arrival of Mohamed Salah from Roma meant that Sadio Mane would be switched to the left wing to accommodate the Egyptian on the right, either side of Roberto Firmino. Liverpool’s participation in four competitions means that Coutinho would still be useful in that wide forward role, but in a first-choice team would be moved deeper into central midfield.
Again, Klopp hardly kept that potential move a secret. “Can we work on different things with Phil? Yes of course,” Liverpool’s manager said in May. “He plays at the moment kind of wing 10 but he can also play as a No 8. That is possible and maybe he will have more influence and we can involve another player on the wing. He would have to adapt to that.”
Klopp’s theory is sound. Coutinho possesses so much skill that he would actually be more effective working in tighter spaces. It is a similar theory to the one Pep Guardiola has hit upon with David Silva at Manchester City, the deepest of deep playmakers. There is still a tendency to hear ‘central midfielder’ and automatically picture tackles as much as passes, because we are English, but it need not be so. Adam Lallana is proof that moving back from an advanced position can lead to increased productivity, not less.
Still, while it is not hard to see Coutinho flourishing in that role – whilst principally a creator, his appetite for hard work is underrated – there is a valid question as to whether this new positional change is a significant factor in his desire to join Barcelona. With Neymar departed, there is a gap for a “wing 10″ at the Camp Nou, and Gerard Deulofeu is not the man to fill it. Coutinho has actually operated on the right for Brazil, with Neymar occupying the space on the left.
Yet watching Liverpool against Hoffenheim on Wednesday, you can see why Klopp was so keen to create his triumvirate of quick, interchangeable forwards with Coutinho deeper. So impressive was the pressing by Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Wijnaldum, and so quick was the support offered by full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alberto Moreno, that Julian Nagelsmann’s team simply could not cope.
When you combine that with three forwards who can each play each other’s role to near perfection, dovetailing and swapping positions, the result is striking and the potential for sumptuous team goals obvious. This was Klopp’s vision for Liverpool, heavy metal football at its clashing, crashing best. Who cares about the worries of maintaining the intensity for 90 long minutes when games are won inside the opening 25?
This is not to say that Liverpool should definitely sell Coutinho, although for the money offered I truly believe that they should. But the arrival of Salah has at least given Klopp a front three with the characteristics he always wanted. If the evidence of the first half an hour against Hoffenheim is worth relying upon, when it all clicks Liverpool will be worth watching this season.
“It’s not ice skating where judges decide on the beauty of your ice skating, we’re playing football here and what matters is winning,” said Klopp on Tuesday, the day before Hoffenheim. “Football is not all about beauty.”
That may be true, but the two need not be mutually exclusive. The truth is that Liverpool’s most effective football comes when a front three rampages and a midfield three gives them the licence. Call me biased, but that’s a thousand times more beautiful than people twirling about in leotards.