It has been three and a half years since the slight and shy Philippe Coutinho joined Liverpool FC, back in January of the 2012/13 season. It was immediately evident that he had talent, with his dribbling and close control breathtaking, and quintessentially Brazilian. However, one thing that Liverpool fans noticed was he may struggle to adapt to the physicality of the league, and that his shooting was not one of his greatest assets. Yet, here we are in the summer of 2017, with Coutinho definitively the best player in the Liverpool side, one of the best in his national team, and with 15 goals from outside the box too: more than anyone else since 2012-13. His improvement and development under Brendan Rodgers, and now Jürgen Klopp, has been nothing short of brilliant.
For the first half of the 2016-17 season Coutinho was untouchable, scoring in the first game of the season with a sublime free-kick from range against Arsenal; Coutinho was displaying such impressive form that had he stayed at that level he would have surely been in the Premier League Team of the Season. Unfortunately for Coutinho, an ankle injury against Sunderland ruled him out of key games, and the effect on Liverpool was clear, whilst he took until early April before returning to form. That being said, he could not have announced his return to form at a more opportune time, or in a more dazzling manner.
Coutinho’s show-stopping display against Everton was outstanding in every sense, with a hand in creating two goals, and a marvellous individual goal sandwiched in-between them. His performances in what seemed at the time the two most nervy games of the season, West Ham and Middlesbrough, illustrated his capacity to perform at the very highest level even when expectation and tension weighed heavily upon the club.
It seems very unlikely that Coutinho will leave this transfer window, but also unlikely that Liverpool will sign a better player than him. This means that Coutinho now has to step up, as he did in the first half, and backend of the season, and lead Liverpool as its best player. His previous seasons have been promising but inconsistent, however at the start of next season he will be 25, and will have captained the Brazil national team in Neymar’s absence. This is an opportunity for Coutinho to really shine, and hit the heights that he is capable of producing.
Next season the demands on Liverpool FC and the squad will be higher than ever. Competitors in the league only seem to strengthen, whilst the squad must adapt from playing a relatively small amount of fixtures, to around sixty games. The targets still have not changed, Liverpool must qualify for the Champions League again, and expectations are growing in relation to Liverpool’s first silverware under Klopp, and the title challenge fans have been craving.
Despite being so young, Coutinho is now one of the most experienced players in the team, through his international experience. Liverpool will need not just his experience, but his leadership, heart and skills, alongside goals and assists. We already know he can play well in big games, he’s scored against Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, but he has the capacity to improve well beyond his current level, and Liverpool need him to do so, consistently.
In his first half-season in the Premier League, during 2012-13, Coutinho played 12 games, scored three goals, and contributed five assists. In the following campaign, he played 28 games, and scored five times, and laid off seven assists. Then in 2014-15, he scored and assisted five apiece, from 32 games. In the proceeding two seasons he scored eight and thirteen goals, and assisted five and seven times from 24 and 28 games respectively. A shift to a new midfield role may see his direct involvement in scoring goals fall, but Liverpool will need, and should expect him to provide a great deal more assists, in a position in which he can affect the game more.
He performed in this role beautifully against West Ham, controlling the play, playing Daniel Sturridge through with a defence-splitting pass, and scoring two fantastic goals relieving the pressure and tension that troubled Liverpool fans worldwide.
This deeper role comes with a great deal more of responsibility, but Coutinho is mature enough to take it in his stride. This season may well be his greatest challenge yet, but we all know he has the quality to succeed at Liverpool, he only needs to display it more consistently and he will certainly go down in the history books.
Coutinho has already stated that he would prefer to ‘not just be another player’ at a side like Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Jürgen Klopp even told him that should he stay, and prove himself as one of the very best, Liverpool are the type of club to build a statue in his honour. All of this is hypothetical of course, but Liverpool were the club that gave Coutinho his break when Inter Milan declined to show faith in him, and it appears that Coutinho is grateful for that and eager to pay back the chance Liverpool offered to him. The challenge for Coutinho is to play so good that Liverpool have to build a statue in his name, and that is dependent upon him.
Liverpool have provided for Coutinho, but now it’s time for him to provide for Liverpool, and to lead the club onto greater things. For Coutinho, it’s time to put away patches of good form, and promising seasons, and instead deliver consistently at the world-class level we know he is capable of.
This is Philippe Coutinho’s biggest season yet, and the best is yet to come.