Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho made his first appearance of Liverpool’s pre-season on Sunday afternoon, lining up alongside the likes of Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in the first half of the Reds’ 2-0 win away to Wigan Athletic and providing a salient reminder of his importance to Jurgen Klopp.
Over 45 minutes at the DW Stadium, Coutinho twisted, turned and surged through the Latics defence, testing goalkeeper Lee Nicholls whenever possible in a display that belied his lack of match fitness—he had spent close to a month out of action following Brazil’s exit from the Copa America Centenario.
The 24-year-old hit the woodwork twice and looked to have struck up a positive early understanding with summer signing Mane, as well as resuming his excellent combination play with his compatriot, Firmino.
Coutinho is in line to start Liverpool’s final domestic friendly away to Huddersfield Town on July 20 before taking up a key role for the Reds during their money-spinning tour of the United States, where he can test his abilities against Chelsea (July 27), AC Milan (July 30) and AS Roma (August 1).
He will be joined by the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Nathaniel Clyne, Divock Origi and Emre Can on the other side of the Atlantic as Klopp‘s summer internationals return to availability following their respective holidays.
But despite the plethora of big-name stars at Klopp‘s disposal this summer—and with another to come in Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, who according to the Shields Gazette‘s Miles Starford is closing in on a move to Merseyside from Newcastle United—Coutinho remains the German’s key player.
“Our country has many brilliant players in Europe,” Brazilian legend Pele told LFCTV on the midfielder’s return to pre-season training. “There are other good young Brazilians in Europe at the moment, but they don’t have Philippe’s experience. He grew up in Europe, moving to Italy when he was just 17 or 18—so he’s a more experienced player already.”
As Pele’s praise attests, Coutinho‘s majesty is finally being recognised in his home country, with his performances underlining his blossoming talent, despite Brazil’s miserable Copa America campaign.
They included a hat-trick as Brazil thrashed Haiti 7-1 at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, leading then-manager Dunga to tell reporters, “That is what we wanted [from him].”
Throughout the Copa America, Coutinho was stationed on the left flank in Dunga‘s 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was in this role that he shone most regularly under Klopp in 2015/16. With Firmino‘s arrival in a deal worth £25 million last summer, the former Hoffenheim man was established as Liverpool’s first-choice No. 10.
The space provided by this wide role allows Coutinho to drive at defences, combine with rampaging left-backs and, perhaps most notably, cut inside on to his stronger right foot and unleash shots on goal—as he proved against Haiti.
In 2015/16, Coutinho enjoyed his most prolific campaign yet, scoring 12 goals and laying on seven assists in 43 games in all competitions, averaging a goal contribution every 169 minutes. For a player who has made a name for himself as the pass-before-the-assist creator, this is a strong level of output.
Only Daniel Sturridge scored more goals than Coutinho last season, while only three players—James Milner (14), Firmino (11) and Adam Lallana (eight)—made more assists.
His attacking exploits throughout 2015/16 saw him receive a clean sweep of awards at Liverpool’s end-of-season ceremony, with the club’s official website revealing he had been named Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, as well as receiving awards for Goal of the Year and Performance of the Year.
That he was able to translate this form to the international stage—again, despite Brazil’s early exit from the Copa America—is a testament to Coutinho‘s progress as a young talent, and Klopp will be hoping he can continue this throughout pre-season and into the new campaign.
The German has made significant additions to his attacking line so far this summer, and the £30 million signing of Mane is set to be followed by the arrival of Wijnaldum from Tyneside, further adding to his options:
- Right Wing—Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Sheyi Ojo
- No. 10—Roberto Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum
- Left Wing—Philippe Coutinho
The flexibility of Mane, Ojo and Wijnaldum in particular will give Klopp the ability to alter his forward line to suit the tactical demands of specific fixtures. He’ll likely revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation whenever possible, with three of his attacking midfielders in support of Sturridge, Origi or Danny Ings in attack.
However, assessing each attacking player’s natural position, Coutinho stands out as the only guaranteed starter, as Mane, Lallana, Ojo, Firmino and Wijnaldum are all more comfortable away from the left flank.
In 2015/16, 26 of Coutinho‘s 33 appearances under Klopp came on the left wing, as the former Borussia Dortmund manager was clearly set on his Brazilian maestro as first choice on that flank, while Firmino and Lallana were most regularly stationed in the centre and the right of his supporting unit, respectively.
Most impressively, Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana shone in Liverpool’s 4-1 win away to Manchester City in November, and at the Etihad Stadium, the 24-year-old was at his most influential.
Coutinho scored one, assisted another, played more key passes than any other Liverpool player (three) and—showcasing an area of his game that has developed rapidly following Klopp‘s arrival—led the press with three successful tackles and one interception, a combined total higher than both Firmino and Lallana.
It was a performance that saw everything click for the Reds, and Coutinho was at the heart of it, with his exceptional talents meshing perfectly with Klopp‘s attacking system.
However, perhaps more indicative of Coutinho‘s importance to Klopp‘s Liverpool was his 65-minute display away to Aston Villa on Valentine’s Day, laying on assists for Sturridge and Origi on the way to a remarkable 6-0 victory at Villa Park. WhoScored.com labelled him its Man of the Match:
Against Villa, Coutinho provided the perfect example of his combination play alongside many of Klopp‘s key players.
The Brazilian’s quick feet and passing ability sees pacy strikers such as Sturridge and Origi thrive, his industry complements the hardworking Firmino and Lallana, and his front-footed attacking style informs a strong understanding with Mamadou Sakho and Alberto Moreno as Klopp‘s left-sided defenders.
After enjoying his most impressive season yet on Merseyside and bringing that form into the Brazil squad this summer, Coutinho is poised to reinforce his importance to Liverpool throughout 2016/17.
If Klopp‘s side are to enjoy success this season, Coutinho will need to play a pivotal role.