Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho returned from injury to make a 45-minute substitute appearance last week against Arsenal, with the Brazilian a strong possibility to start Saturday's game against Fulham.
While the Reds continue to perform well near the top of the Premier League table, there is little doubt that the No. 10's return will add some much-needed invention and unpredictability to the attack, as one of the few players in the squad who possess genuine vision and confidence to pull off difficult, defence-splitting passes.
Brendan Rodgers has some wonderful attackers at his disposal with a range of attributes between them, but many already see Coutinho as the key link man who can make them all function to the best of their abilities.
The 21-year-old's technique and ability, on and off the ball, mark him out as a special talent. It would be no great surprise to see Rodgers shape the formation and the plan of attack of the team around him.
Areas of Impact
Coutinho has generally played in two positions for Liverpool since arriving from Inter Milan in January—either in a central attacking midfield role, or cutting in from an advanced left-sided position.
While most are agreed that his best position is central, his manager is right to, at times, try to afford him a little more time and space on the ball by shifting Coutinho wider, out of the bustle and aggression of the centre of the park where his team-mates can look to switch the ball left, and let Coutinho create from there.
A look at one of Coutinho's earliest performances, at home to Swansea City, shows how even when he is operating from the left side of the attack, up to a third of his on-the-ball activity can come in centralised positions.
Coutinho played just shy of an hour in this match, his first Liverpool start, and though it was against a weakened Swansea side (pre-League Cup final) he quickly gave evidence of his ability to dribble, get into advanced areas and be a threat on goal. Indeed his first strike for the Reds arrived in this game too.
One of the Reds' best performances of last season came at Newcastle United, in a 6-0 win. Coutinho played in a central attacking midfield role in that game, where he was able to constantly place himself in space, receive the ball and provide a string of chances for the team.
He made two key passes in this game and attempted a total of seven passes into the penalty area, giving the rest of the attackers plenty of reason to keeping running, making space and heading toward goal.
Just as impressive, though, is his obvious willingness to roam the entire length and breadth of the pitch to find the ball and make things happen. Playing centrally he does not restrict himself to operating the width of the centre circle, but instead will drift wide, drop deep to pick up the ball in space or look to get forward and support the striker.
In part it is Liverpool's versatile and mobile attack which can let him do this—Jordan Henderson, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are all comfortable roaming around the pitch as well—with positional rotation a key feature of the Reds' attack when all are at their best.
Coutinho doesn't take set pieces and doesn't fire a succession of hopeful balls toward the strikers at every opportunity, so his tally of key passes isn't as high as some might expect.
Even so, he comfortably surpasses an average of a key pass per game, making 20 in 13 appearances last season and seven in five games this term so far.
Of course, most of his key passes this season came heavily skewed in one game, the season opener against Stoke City. Liverpool's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance meant an awful lot of running was required, with fewer opportunities to impact play on the ball, but he still put in a good performance in an attacking sense.
Last term his creativity was in fact far more consistent.
He created between one and four chances per game on eight different occasions from his 13 appearances, tallying five assists in that time frame.
Crucially for the type of player that Coutinho is, he is not afraid to attempt his creative passing from all areas of the pitch. Cutting in to feed the ball to forwards, passing from deep or short, incisive balls from the edge of the box—all are within his repertoire, and he has the confidence and technique to pull them off.
They won't all come off, of course; the very nature of his game implies that he takes on tasks which are difficult to execute and which defenders, adept at reading passages of play, will inevitably cut out on several occasions. The important facet for Liverpool's attack, though, is that Coutinho continues to vary and to attempt to play his way through—and that the forwards continue to make the runs in anticipation of him succeeding next time.
How he can Benefit Reds Most
The best way to get the best from Coutinho is simple: have plenty of other clever attackers making constant runs off the ball for him. If the Reds' No. 10 gets the ball, he will find a team-mate in attacking positions with a well-weighted ball for them to take a touch and get a shot away.
Whether he plays from the left or the centre will depend largely on Rodgers' chosen tactics for the team going forward. He is, of course, more effective in the centre because he will receive more of the ball there, but the needs of the team as a whole must be taken into account.
Coutinho works hard and will press, but is not overly physical and is wasted if he is expected to track back 50 metres or so without possession, so playing wide in certain formations allows him to remain closer to goal.
Whatever his starting position, Coutinho can find spaces on the pitch.
Liverpool dominating possession and winning the ball back high up the field is the best way to get the maximum from Coutinho, whose speed of thought and ability to make good decisions during transitions can be key to creating far more good quality chances on goal than the team have done so far this season.
Ideal Set-up for Coutinho
Playing as an attacking midfielder through the middle is one thing, but he has to have runners. A 4-4-1-1 where he plays behind a lone forward and two true wingers make darts to the corner flags won't necessarily be the best for the team, because although Coutinho can certainly contribute to the goal tally, he is better utilised with central runners around the edge of the box.
A 4-2-3-1 (or the Reds' usual 4-2-1-3 shape) gives better options as Liverpool often look to the wide men, in that system, to make up additional forward bodies inside the penalty area, running diagonally in. Finding the gaps between centre- and full-backs to make those runs count is exactly where Coutinho's strengths lie.
Capable of dribbling past a man to open up space as much as using a quick one-two, getting men around Coutinho for him to play off is the key. Liverpool have used two centre-forwards of late, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, and the options to play Coutinho in behind both are also there.
In the current back-three system, he can play as the attacking midfielder in a 3-4-1-2, but this has left Liverpool exposed at times when defending. The midfield is perhaps not balanced enough to allow for this to be a long-term option.
A diamond midfield (4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2 etc) would offer more balance, put greater numbers surrounding Coutinho and would, in theory at least, best utilise the midfielders on the club's books at present while also keeping the top two pairing.
For now Rodgers may opt to use Coutinho as the left-sided forward cutting infield until top form and fitness level return, but looking at the longer term, mobility, pace and intelligent movement from any incoming forwards are key for Liverpool.
Coutinho will get the best out of such players, and they in turn will let him fulfil his devastating potential.
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