Philippe Coutinho’s absence could be the making of Liverpool’s title challenge
Philippe Coutinho has emerged as Liverpool’s creator-in-chief but his injury could be the making of the Reds’ title challenge, writes Alex Hess.
Liverpool might be without a superstar at the moment but that’s not to say they’ve lacked standout players. In fact there's been a few, chief among them Philippe Coutinho, who, having spent the opening months of this season operating at the peak of his powers, will spend the closing weeks of the year with his leg in a brace, watching on impotently from his sofa as his team-mates play a pivotal phase of their campaign without him. The Christmas fixture list will be his Rear Window.
It’s a big loss. Quietly, Coutinho has been enjoying something of a watershed season, with the creases in his game – looking to beat one man too many, trying to force the perfect through-ball, blamming in shots from everywhere as soon as his team go behind – having been ironed out since the summer and replaced with some welcome consistency. His stock has duly soared. On a purely aesthetic level, Coutinho has rarely been less than sumptuous. The difference this season is that he’s productive: of Liverpool’s midfielders, no one makes more ‘key passes’ than the Brazilian, and only Sadio Mane dribbles past opponents more often. In terms of goals and assists, his current tally (five of each) is already on a rough par with his total for each of his three full campaigns on Merseyside.
Liverpool's Sadio Mane in action with West Bromwich Albion's Gareth McAuleyReuters
In short, the fearful hush that enveloped Anfield on Saturday when Coutinho left the pitch on a stretcher, hands covering his face in that footballing shorthand for ‘properly injured’, was pretty well-founded.
The fear is rational enough: Liverpool’s tantalising early-season form has been founded on exuberant attacking, so what happens when the team’s most exuberant attacker, its creative centrepiece, is removed? But if that logic caused Saturday's crowd to fret about the future, there was reassurance to be found in the present: Coutinho's replacement eventually picked an obstinate defensive lock and a Liverpool side shorn not just of the Brazilian but of Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge won comfortably – a formula which repeated itself again on Tuesday night, albeit with a tad less comfort.
Against Sunderland, until his game was curtailed, Coutinho had once again been Liverpool’s most noticeable player. Not because he was carving apart the opposition at will, though, but because his every step had been tracked assiduously by Jason Denayer, who’d been tasked in no uncertain terms with marking the Brazilian out of the game. That sort of unabashed man-marking mission is a rarity these days, and the spectacle – essentially a 10 v 10 football match and a mini one-on-one battle being played simultaneously on the same pitch – was as amusing as it was uncommon.
Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho controls the ball during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane in London, on August 27, 2016AFP
It worked, too. Short a sample size as it was, those 34 minutes were among the least effective of Coutinho’s season. It could be a sign of things to come: just as Liverpool, the better they look in attack, are going to have to cope with increasingly asphyxiating tactics, so their standout attacker is going to be singled out for bespoke preventative measures.
All of which means that the expected loss of Coutinho for six weeks or so may not be the possible catastrophe it’s been touted as. While the blessing-in-disguise truism would probably be overstating things, the odd silver lining is hardly out of the question. The removal of their conductor figure may or may not leave Liverpool struggling for cohesion; it will certainly leave their opponents without an obvious creative source to set out to stifle.
What’s more, his likely replacement, be it Origi or Sturridge, will present defences with a very different type of problem, be it no-nonsense muscularity or gluttonous sharpshooting. Origi’s reappearance in centre-stage these last two games has been a timely reminder of the quality of a striker who was chosen ahead of Sturridge for a slew of crunch fixtures last season (and over Romelu Lukaku at international level) – and proved that judgment justified. As for Sturridge, he'll retain that wolfish air of threat for as long as he's on a football pitch. Whisper it, but Liverpool’s attacking options could well be up there with any club in the division.
Divock Origi in actionReuters
It’s likely that neither will be quite as attuned to the team’s shapeshifting attacks or Klopp’s exacting pressing routines as the man they're replacing, so the odd stylistic compromise may well be in order. But then what are the winter months for if not to batten down the hatches, reach for a Plan B and grind out a handful of mud-stained, frost-bitten wins? (Of course, winning ugly may not actually be necessary: the only game Coutinho has missed so far this term was the 4-1 win over Leicester, as comprehensive a dispatching of the reigning champions as you could hope for.)
The standout feature of Klopp’s Liverpool side this season – that it’s a genuinely collective endeavour, with responsibility shared out accordingly – mitigates against any one injury having the power to devastate an entire campaign. But that's just the first part of a two-pronged system, with strength in depth being the other. Origi's showing on Saturday suggested that the second part of the plan may run just as smoothly as the first.
But the proof will be in the pudding: if Liverpool make 2017 without their title hopes having gone the way of Bowie, Rickman, Castro and the rest, then the rest of the league will need to take them very seriously indeed.