Jack Hallows gives his thoughts on the Philippe Coutinho in midfield dilemma and whether he believes the Brazilian should play there next season.
“Phil can play this. If he starts on the wing, he’s very often in this position – he was never a winger, he was always a playmaker. He needs to be in the decisive area in the middle of the park, in a shooting situation.”
That’s Jürgen Klopp speaking after Liverpool’s 4-0 victory over West Ham at the London Stadium and it’s hard to argue with him. There have been calls for the Brazilian to be moved into a central role for years now and while Rodgers did experiment with him as both an 8 and a 10 at times, they’ve largely fallen on deaf ears.
In fairness, Coutinho himself has reiterated in interviews previously that he believes the left side of an attacking trident is his best position and given that it’s from this position that he’s managed to become the team’s talisman since Suarez left in 2014, you can see why.
However, based on the evidence provided by his performance at the London Stadium, there may just be a case for him to play centrally more often next season.
Coutinho at West Ham
Undeniably Man of the Match on Sunday afternoon, Coutinho started slowly but after an initial 20 minutes of bedding into his changed role, the Brazilian began pulling the strings with unerring ease.
The victory saw Coutinho create a staggering six chances for teammates across his 85 minutes on the field – the same amount as the entire West Ham team – and his pass for Sturridge’s opener was the definition of ‘defence-splitting.’
He also finished the match with an impressive 89% total pass accuracy, a number which only Gini Wijnaldum of Liverpool’s attacking players managed to better.
It wasn’t only a masterclass in passing either. The little Brazilian’s dribbling ability was in full flow as he completed four take ons, comfortably more than any other player on the park and registered six of his own efforts at goal. This shows that despite starting in a much deeper role, Coutinho was constantly involved in the Reds’ attacks with his ability to dovetail and communicate effectively with Adam Lallana a huge part of that.
While Coutinho didn’t manage to register a successful tackle, he could also be seen working hard throughout the entire game, snapping at legs and doing his best to get stuck in.
Moving ahead to next season
For me, there was more than enough in Coutinho’s performance against West Ham to suggest this is something that Jürgen Klopp should persevere with next season – especially if he signs another attacking player. However, it definitely should not be made his full-time position.
Against teams that will look to sit in deep against the Reds, putting 10 men behind the ball and looking to catch them on the break, Coutinho in midfield could be invaluable.
His ability to unlock defences with pinpoint passes from deep, dribble circles around players and take part in quick, one-touch passing moves further up the field could be invaluable against sides that set up in the way that Southampton did last weekend at Anfield and would allow Klopp to have an extra attacking body on the pitch.
Keeping him in a central role would also see him given far more opportunity to link up with countryman Roberto Firmino and allow the pair to bring each other into the game with far more regularity.
Despite not being the tallest – or strongest – Coutinho’s defensive contribution is also still highly underrated by many Liverpool fans and an attacking double pivot of Lallana and Coutinho ahead of Emre Can or Jordan Henderson in the 6 would give the Reds an extra line of pressing if Firmino, Mané and co. fail to shut down the back four.
However, despite his ability to get involved in pressing moves, there are certain games in which Coutinho should be fielded back out on the left of the attacking three. For example, games where the Reds match up against big, strong midfields that look to dominate the aerial battle and get heavily stuck in would see a midfield of Henderson, Lallana and Coutinho easily overrun and outmuscled, leaving the defence exposed and no links to the attacking personnel. These games are where Coutinho’s ability to thread passes for the likes of Firmino and Mané on the break and act as the link between midfield and attack would become vital.
There is also the issue that in a game where the Reds have to do a lot more defensively than they did at the London Stadium – West Ham hardly threatened after the first 30 minutes – Coutinho would be in danger of fading out of the game entirely.
The Brazilian isn’t a natural in the responsibilities of a box to box midfielder in the same way that Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana have become this season and it is very likely he could be lost in transition when the Reds give away possession.
The current set up of Coutinho left, Firmino central and Mané right has also worked wonders against the ‘big six’ this season and for me, shouldn’t be tampered with for those games next season.
Playing this front three ahead of a midfield of Henderson/Can, Lallana and Wijanldum has proven to be a perfect balance for the bigger games and should remain Klopp’s first choice. However, this is an issue that only Klopp can work out an answer for and if he finds one, then I’m all for seeing it given a go.
After his performance on the weekend, it’s very hard to find any reasons at face value as to why Coutinho shouldn’t play in central midfield. His dribbling, passing, ability to break from deep and vision are all key components that would help add goals and creativity to Klopp’s midfield three.
However, if it is a road Klopp goes down he’ll have to be careful to only use this tactic in games where it’s going to suit Coutinho and give the Reds a new dimension to their attacking play.