Liverpool took victory in the opening game of their 2014-15 Premier League season thanks to a 2-1 home win over Southampton. The game saw the Reds take three points largely as a result of their ability to defend well enough, to be clinical and have match-winners in the side, rather than because they went all-out-attack, as was the case for much of last season.
With a raft of new signings made over the summer and three different systems used in pre-season, the opening game was always going to make for interesting watching for Reds fans.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has consistently looked to alter the make-up of his midfield arrangement to give room for his finest attacking talents to thrive, and as the game against Southampton showed, changing the layout of the players will be necessary to get the best out of the likes of Philippe Coutinho.
The Brazilian will be vital to Liverpool's success this season as the most creative final-third talent in the squad, and not having a one-size-fits-all approach to the midfield tactics will benefit him more than most this season.
10 vs. Saints
Coutinho started the match against Southampton from the right, but then very quickly moved central and played as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, a system which Liverpool utilised barely at all over the second half of last season.
Southampton played a similar system, and the midfield pivot of Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin perfectly shielded their defence to the extent that Coutinho was rendered ineffective for much of the match, struggling to find space or time on the ball.
Twice he spun away from his marker and surged into the Saints' half; twice he almost provided telling through passes for the forwards to run onto. It didn't really happen for Coutinho on the day, and he was subbed—with Liverpool immediately changing systems thereafter.
While playing as a No. 10 is no problem for the Brazilian, the 4-2-3-1 shape the Reds used rendered him easily markable on this occasion. Usually, in the diamond shape adopted by the team last season, Liverpool can match up one-on-one in midfield with teams and still have one player free, often which was Coutinho on account of his intelligence and ability to quickly shift the ball and move himself into a new position.
Three against three in the centre didn't allow him to do that on this occasion, being up against such an excellent and diligent pairing, but soon after the switch to a diamond it was noticeable that Raheem Sterling, who then moved to the 10, was able to exploit spaces which suddenly opened up ahead of him.
Space as 8
In both the diamond and in a 4-3-3 system, Coutinho operated as one of the advanced central pressers last season, usually alongside Jordan Henderson and ahead of Steven Gerrard.
Again, this gave Coutinho plenty of room to dart into after turnovers of possession, with Liverpool so adept at taking advantage of transition phases of play. It's a role to which he will return sooner or later, in part because he excels there—think games against Everton at Anfield, Arsenal at Anfield, Norwich City at Carrow Road—but also partly because Liverpool now have a lot more options for the front three, whether they are arranged one centrally and two strikers or one centre-forward and two on the flanks.
In each case, the task for Rodgers will be to figure out how the opposition will line up, where the match-ups in midfield will come and where to best position Coutinho—or Sterling, or Jordan Henderson, but Coutinho especially—to make use of space and his great drive, vision and technique in the final pass.
Liverpool need another striker—that is clear, and Rodgers has alluded to the fact several times, per the club website.
It's generally accepted that three strikers would be enough for Liverpool—because of the other players who can play just behind or down the channels of the forwards, regardless of the system. Both Sterling and Coutinho can, while Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana will return from injury soon. Add in young Jordon Ibe and Suso, and there is depth there.
In midfield, one more might be appreciated if Rodgers can add quality and versatility, but the emphasis has to be on encouraging link-ups between the players already in place now.
Sterling and Coutinho have shown a great understanding at times, and getting those two close to each other inevitably yields the Reds' best moves, especially when supported by the running and off-ball movement of Henderson and Daniel Sturridge.
As ever, it will be a balancing act for Rodgers to keep everybody fit and firing and altering the team slightly to get the best out of his top talents. It won't be every game that Sturridge can score, Sterling can beat the opposition defence or, as against Southampton, Coutinho can have the creative impact that fans have come to expect of him.
But as the Saints game also showed, Liverpool now have several match-winners in their squad, and Rodgers can change the side around to get the best out of a new one, when the expected advantages aren't won in the initial stages of a game.