Outstanding Philippe Coutinho thriving after Liverpool change formation
When I first saw Philippe Coutinho, he was winning the Under-20 World Cup with Brazil in 2011. He seemed, to be honest, something of an indulgence, particularly given that his inclusion at the tip of a diamond midfield in that tournament meant that Oscar, who at the time looked a far more complete footballer, had to drop back to play on the left side of centre.
Nothing he did at Internazionale altered those first impressions and I admit to being highly sceptical when Coutinho joined Liverpool. Over the past two seasons, though, he has emerged as one of the most exciting young attacking midfielders in the world, and perhaps nobody has benefited as much from Brendan Rodgers’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 as he has.
In 11 of the 13 league games since Rodgers' change of shape he has picked up a Whoscored.com rating of more than 7.5 (in eight of them of more than 8.0). In the last two league games, against Southampton and Manchester City, he has scored stunning goals.
The new formation poses major problems for opponents. If they play with a single holder in midfield, he has to deal with both Coutinho and whoever his partner in that attacking midfield role is – usually Adam Lallana or Raheem Sterling – often with a false nine – Sterling – dropping back to confuse matters further. Even if there are two holders, they must simultaneously monitor their direct opponents while not leaving space in front of the back four for an opponent to surge into.
As Coutinho and Lallana showed against Manchester City, they are supremely adept at finding little pockets of space. They were helped, admittedly, by the laxity of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, but still, their capacity to drift into space so that when they received the ball they could turn, was hugely impressive. That’s why Coutinho has completed 2.7 dribbles per game this season as opposed to 1.8 last: there are far more occasions when he has time and space to run at a static or backtracking opponent.
But the starkest change in Coutinho’s game has come since the change of shape; he’s a player reborn, revelling in the opportunities the system gives him. His rating has shot up, from 6.67 to 7.89. He’s producing goals and assists, having more shots per game (1.8 up tp 3.0) and making nearly 5 times as many key passes per appearance (0.5 up to 2.4).
It’s as though the change of shape has generated a completely new player, making a Champions League forward from somebody who had been playing like a Championship striker.
There are still those who claim football is just about players and not about tactics, as though how the players are deployed makes no difference. This, surely, is their answer. And yet there is also a psychological aspect – concerns of tactics and morale, as they so often do, bleeding together.
Coutinho just looks happier and more confident, something perhaps reflected in his tackling statistics: he makes 2.7 per game in a 3-4-2-1 as opposed to 0.7 in the more orthodox formation. That may in part be down to position, that he finds himself more often tight against the opposing holding midfielder and so in a position to make tackles, but it also suggests greater enthusiasm to go and hunt the ball down.
The other side of that is his shooting: in the slough of the early part of the season, would he even have attempted those shots that brought the goals against Southampton and City?
A change of shape has changed not only the dynamic of how Liverpool play, but also the mood. The rushing sense of excitement that carried them so far last season is back (if not, perhaps always in the cup), and nobody has benefited so much from that as Countinho who, this season, is outshining Oscar.