Argentina are in some trouble. Defeat to Brazil in a World Cup qualifier is never a happy occasion, but there exists a line between defeat and demoralisation in sport. In the twenty-fifth minute, that line was crossed by Philippe Coutinho, who slammed in an unstoppable drive. It was not merely advantage Brazil. It knocked the wind out of Argentina’s sails, crushed their morale and they surrendered to a 3-0 defeat.
It followed in the footsteps of a goal for Liverpool against Watford a week ago, when Coutinho hammered a low shot for the Reds’ second goal of the afternoon at Anfield. The Brazilian is prospering on the field this season, and Liverpool’s attack, remodelled over the summer, has helped him reach his consistent best.
International break can lead to transfer rumour mills working extra shifts even when they’re not required to. The image of a mildly disdainful Coutinho was splashed over the front of Sport, sending a little red corner of social media into both concern and sneering over the possibility of the midfielder’s move to Barcelona. It was, amusingly, aided and abetted by some suggestive comments from Coutinho’s international teammate Neymar – who is, of course, presently on the books of that particular club.
While this is more than a mild overreaction – the word of the notoriously pro-Barcelona Sport functions as slightly undercooked evidence, to say the least – Coutinho’s importance to Liverpool is surely not, and his ability to produce on a consistent basis this season has made him one of the key members of the side.
Spectacular to watch at his best, criticisms of Coutinho – some lazy, some justified – centred around his over-eagerness to strike from range, and subsequently his inconsistent play. The issue may not have been with him – Liverpool’s creative rigidity forced the Brazilian to fling Hail Marys from distance with increasing frequency under Brendan Rodgers – but with the stable tool of consistency added to his repertoire and the more profligate aspects of his game minimised, Coutinho is making good on his immense capabilities.
In 2016-17, Coutinho has managed five goals – as many has he has managed in two out of the last three full seasons – and five assists in 11 league appearances, plus a goal in the EFL Cup as well. Last season, it took him until February to do so, and in 21 appearances (in equivalent competitions, therefore these figures exclude Europa League games). He boasts a scoring rate of a goal every two games this season, a rate consistent with elite strikers.
While we are still early into the current season, and likely Coutinho will not sustain a one-in-two scoring rate over the course of the campaign, there seems reason enough to suggest he can at least have a very good go at doing so. Jurgen Klopp’s summer transfer business and refitting of the team’s tactic and attacking dynamic are the cause.
Coutinho has had his struggles in a 4-2-3-1 formation where he has had to shoulder much of the creative burden, with the team consistently seeking him to produce a bolt of lightning from the blue. Now part of a fluid, multi-pronged attack on the left side of a 4-3-3, Coutinho has dovetailed effectively with the mesh of qualities hovering dangerously around the opposition penalty box – Sadio Mane’s speed, Roberto Firmino’s movement, Adam Lallana’s precision, Georginio Wijnaldum’s supporting runs from midfield.
It has reduced the pressure on the Brazilian, and allowed him to link up with quicker, more active players on the same wavelength as he. With the able James Milner deputising at left back and Jordan Henderson securing the deeper midfield, Coutinho has not been shackled by excessive defensive responsibility either.
Coutinho’s reputation as a player who scores clutch goals at clutch times – a third of his goals last season came in the last twenty minutes of a game is well founded, and is what distinguished him from other members of Liverpool’s attack. Crucial goals last season against Manchester City (in the EFL Cup final), Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea are still fresh in the memory, as is the crucial free kick just before half time at the Emirates this season.
To this skill, Coutinho has now added consistency, which gives his brilliance an even more lethal edge. Despite the augmentation of Liverpool’s attack, the Brazilian’s importance has only increased.
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