Philippe Coutinho enjoyed an outstanding individual campaign in 2014/15, despite the woes of his club side, and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers will be looking to the 23-year-old Brazilian to help arrest the Reds' slide into mediocrity in the upcoming 2015/16 season.
Coutinho was awarded the Players' Player of the Year, Player of the Year, Goal of the Year and Performance of the Year accolades by the club at the end of the season, as confirmed by Liverpool's official website in May. The awards served a symbol of his overriding brilliance in a season that saw Rodgers' side crash miserably out of European competition, fail to achieve any domestic silverware and finish a dismal sixth in the Premier League.
Collecting his awards, Coutinho looked to the future:
It's very important for me because these awards were chosen by my fellow team-mates and the supporters.
My team-mates are the people I work with all year round, so being recognised by them makes it an important award for me which I treasure a lot
Hopefully we will fight for the first four places and the title [next season], like [in 2013/14]. Unfortunately, things didn't go our way this season but we hope that next season we will be there or thereabouts.
Having pledged his future to Liverpool with a new long-term contract back in February, again as reported by the club's official website, Coutinho looks set to outlive wantaway team-mate Raheem Sterling as the pride of Anfield, and his words on the signing of his new deal point to a positive future:
I'm really happy. It's a dream come true playing for this great club and being part of this squad.
Today I've committed my future to the club and for this I'm feeling very pleased.
This club is great and the fans have always supported me, so I've been eager to sign this new deal since conversations started. Today is a very happy day.
Coutinho clearly sees himself central to any future success for Liverpool, and this hope will be mirrored by the club's supporters, who had a hand in deciding three of his four end-of-season awards.
But how can Liverpool get the best out of Coutinho in 2015/16?
Receiving his own award at the club's end-of-season ceremony, departing captain Steven Gerrard chose to divert attention from himself and focus on the majesty of his Brazilian team-mate, as reported by James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo. As he picked up his Outstanding Achievement Award, Gerrard said:
I'm bored of speaking about myself, I want to pay tribute to Philippe.
This is his night. I think he's cleaned up tonight on the awards and deservedly so.
I'm privileged to share a dressing room with him. He's the next big thing for me.
I hope he stays here for a long time and can help the club win more trophies.
Gerrard has worked with a plethora of world-class players, with Xabi Alonso, Luis Suarez, Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Fowler to name eight, and this praise for Coutinho could see him edging toward this prestigious group. The former Inter Milan midfielder clearly has the talent.
This is evidenced by his recent call-up to Dunga's Brazil squad for the 2015 Copa America in Chile, and he is set to play a starring role alongside the majestic Neymar Jr., who reserved special praise for his longtime friend, as relayed by the Mirror's David Anderson, back in February:
He can be the star player in England. This season I think everybody in England is seeing how talented he is—and I know he has a lot more to show.
I think since Luis [Suarez] joined us at Barcelona, Liverpool have not had that one player they can look to for that special moment.
Couto can be that player for them I’m sure. When he has the ball at his feet, he can make things happen for himself and he can make things happen for other players. He is a very special player.
Neymar's outlining of Coutinho's talents points toward his key strength: creativity.
He averaged 1.7 key passes per game in the league in 2014/15, with only Sterling (2.1), Gerrard (1.8) and Jordan Henderson (1.8) producing more in the Liverpool squad; he played 0.4 through balls per league game, the most of any Liverpool player; and he made 3.1 successful dribbles per league game, also the most of any Reds player.
One convincing argument for why he is behind three of his team-mates in terms of key passes played is the way in which Coutinho was utilised by Rodgers throughout last season.
With much of the first half of the season spent wasted in a wide-left role, Coutinho didn't truly blossom until Rodgers introduced his successful 3-4-2-1 formation toward the end of 2014, which saw the No. 10 take up an advanced playmaking role behind a lone striker.
In Liverpool's subsequent switch to a 4-3-3, Coutinho continued a central role—this must be continued in 2015/16 if he is to reach his best form.
His performances in the second half of the season drew further praise from another major Brazilian star, Ronaldinho, with the 35-year-old even suggesting he could be a future Barcelona player—much to Liverpool supporters' ire—as reported by Nicholas Godden of MailOnline:
He has had a fantastic season—he has been one of the best midfield players in Europe—and when you think he has been playing in a team that has not been performing well that is an even bigger achievement.
I can't speak for him and I can't speak for Barcelona—but I know what Barcelona look for in a player and he has all those qualities
Playing with great players makes you better, I know that. Not only would he win trophies with Barcelona, but playing with Neymar, Messi, Suarez, Iniesta, is going to make him a better player.
As both Neymar and Ronaldinho attest, Coutinho is the player who makes Liverpool tick, and this became even more apparent as he grew in a more natural role in the second half of the season. The latter's suggestion that Coutinho would flourish with better players around him is similarly astute, and it is something Liverpool should heed as they approach the 2015/16 season.
"The Brazilian maestro that is Philippe Coutinho has captivated the Liverpool faithful since his move from Inter Milan. He mesmerises fans and players alike with what he does with the ball, and it’s little wonder he’s nicknamed The Magician," Sam McGuire wrote for AnfieldIndex this month, before analogising: "Unfortunately though, for both the player and the fans, he currently lacks a magician's assistant, which is a key part of turning a successful magician's act into a mind-blowing one."
"The assistant draws the audiences gaze which allows the magician to do what’s needed...That right there is what Liverpool lacked last season...Someone who could draw the attention away from our No. 10," he continued.
McGuire makes a shrewd point here, one that aligns with the sentiments of Ronaldinho about Coutinho potentially flourishing among the myriad talents of Barcelona: Coutinho can't do it all, and he shouldn't be expected to at Liverpool.
Rodgers should take note of this as he plots to get the best of the Brazilian in 2015/16. Liverpool need another player to lighten the load currently burdening the 23-year-old on Merseyside, another playmaker to complement Liverpool's chief technician, another cerebral lobe to accent Coutinho as the Reds' "brain," as Rodgers so lavishly acknowledged him last summer.
McGuire's words preface an examination of what widely reported Liverpool target Mateo Kovacic would bring to Rodgers' squad if he were to make the move from Inter Milan this summer. The Reds reportedly had a bid for the Inter man turned down back in May, according to Ben Jefferson of the Express.
Like Coutinho, Kovacic is a creative talent, averaging 1.8 key passes per Serie A game last season; like Coutinho, he loves threading a through ball, with an average of 0.3 per game in Italy's top flight; like Coutinho, he is an astute dribbler, making 2.6 dribbles per league appearance on average.
Importantly, too, the 21-year-old midfielder operates in a slightly different position to Coutinho, taking up a more central midfield role compared to the Brazilian's traditional No. 10. If Kovacic were to join Liverpool this summer, he would, in theory, lighten the creative load currently weighing Coutinho down and would intertwine well with his dynamic style of play.
However, if Dominic King of the Mail is correct, and Liverpool have no current interest in the Croatian midfielder—is there an option within the current Reds squad who could help relieve the burden next season?
Adam Lallana, a £25 million signing from Southampton last summer, would surely like to think so. He told Andy Hunter of the Guardian last month that he is ready to take up more responsibility in light of Gerrard's move to LA Galaxy this summer, declaring:
There shouldn’t be any responsibility on anyone to solely fill Steven’s boots. It is going to have to be a contribution from the team.
If everyone gives two, three per cent extra then hopefully we can half fill that spot. It is going to be tough but we will be working hard.
I’m 27 and I feel that responsibility. I’m a leader and I feel responsible in the group but we have a lot of leaders in the team. We have good team spirit as well. I just hope we can build on this season. There are a lot of ups and downs but plenty of positives to be had. We need to learn from it, take it into next year and definitely build on it.
Lallana operates in a similar attacking midfield role to Coutinho but was deployed alongside him regularly within Rodgers' 3-4-2-1, proving that they can work well together. He contributes an inventive one-touch game within pockets of space in front of and between opposing defences and looks to charge forward with the ball whenever possible. He could prove the perfect foil to Coutinho's talents next season, if he remains fit and is truly capable of stepping up, as he attests.
However, with all the help that Kovacic or Lallana would provide, Liverpool would still struggle to get the best out of Coutinho next season if their goalscoring woes continue in the forward line.
Speaking after making a hero's return to the Liverpool first team, with a goal just 12 minutes into his return from a long spell on the sidelines with injury in January's 2-0 win over West Ham United, star striker Daniel Sturridge professed his joy at playing alongside a playmaker like Coutinho.
"It was great play by Coutinho. We have a great relationship—he knows my runs and I know the types of passes he likes to play as well. He makes my job easier," Sturridge told Neil Jones of the Liverpool Echo. "Once I saw him cut inside, I knew the ball would come and it was just a case of getting it under control and hitting the target."
These words evoke a near-telepathic relationship Sturridge has with Coutinho—the pair both joined Liverpool in January 2013—and the combination of the Englishman's intelligent runs and Coutinho's perceptive ball-playing has been at the fulcrum of Rodgers' success on Merseyside. With Suarez gone, Coutinho is the player Sturridge has the most chemistry with on the field of play. This points to a hugely important move that Liverpool must make this summer, in signing a new striker.
Disappointingly, the centre-forward that Rodgers has seemingly made his top priority this summer is £32.5 million-rated Christian Benteke, of Aston Villa, as reported by John Percy of the Telegraph. But this battering-ram specification of striker is not what Liverpool should be looking for.
Instead, Liverpool should be looking to sign another dynamic, pacy forward, with similar qualities to Sturridge, this summer. A player like Luciano Vietto, Javier Hernandez or Carlos Bacca, who will run the channels, latch onto the Brazilian's through balls and terrorise defenders with pace would fit the bill.
Benteke is so far from this calibre of striker, as Belgium manager Marc Wilmots underlined following his side's recent loss to Wales in their 2016 European Championships qualifier, according to Tom Dutton of the London Evening Standard: "I changed my system [after Wales scored], because Benteke was isolated. I then played with two strikers, but they need more crosses. We asked them to get to the front post, but they stand there like two poles. We still have work to do."
As discussed, Coutinho is Liverpool's best player, their creative talisman and the player whose qualities they need to magnify next season in order to achieve success. This will not be accomplished by forcing him to provide cross after cross for a static Benteke, and instead a more suitable, Sturridge-esque striker must be signed.
With this help from the midfield and with a more worthy target to provide for in attack, Coutinho can look to build toward his best in 2015/16.
Speaking to the club's official website following a 6-0 win away to Newcastle United back in April of 2013, Rodgers praised Coutinho following an outstanding performance but was quick to point out there was much progress to be made. After the victory at St. James' Park, the manager professed:
We build up players in the country and put them on a pedestal and then quickly nail them down.
He's had an outstanding performance and people can see why we brought him in. He's 20 years of age and fits the culture of what we're trying to do here.
He's technically strong and he's a very humble boy. He works hard, you can see the effort in his game, the pressure, the intensity, so he fits in really well, but there's a long way to go.
Coutinho finished his first half-season on Merseyside with three goals and five assists from 13 Premier League appearances, averaging at a goal contribution every 117 minutes. He joined Sturridge as the spark that revitalised a flagging 2012/13 season, full of energy and creative inspiration.
But Rodgers was right: He still needed to develop his game, namely in improving his defensive work—an aspect of his game that was prominent from the start of the following season.
The Brazilian is seemingly a very swift learner when it comes to on-field improvements, as he outlined with a remarkable development in his efforts in front of goal in the second half of 2014/15. In January, Coutinho told Ian Doyle of the Liverpool Echo that he was working hard to improve his shooting accuracy, among other areas, saying:
There are always so many things to improve.
I’ve been working on assisting my team-mates even further and improving my goal tally as I understand this as being part of my role. I expect to do better on this.
In training, I’ve been working with our coaches on specific tasks to better my final touch.
Whenever possible, I have post-training sessions to work on improving my shooting accuracy.
This end-of-month concession was followed by his two-assist performance at home to West Ham in the Premier League and by scoring the winning goal in early February's 2-1 away win over Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup with a last-minute, long-range curler. Five more great goals came between then and the end of the season, all near-identical to that Macron Stadium stunner.
Coutinho was on the money with his words on development, but to become the world-class player that Liverpool know he has the potential to be, he must continue to improve. Chiefly, this must come with finding consistency on the pitch—the way in which he drifted into the periphery in April's 4-1 league loss away to Arsenal will have concerned Rodgers, who was without a number of key players for that clash.
But that low-squad-depth caveat should underline just how Liverpool will get the best out of an ever-improving Coutinho in 2015/16. He must be played in his best position, in the central playmaking role; he must be supported by a similarly able creative talent, be that Lallana or a new signing such as Kovacic; and he must be deployed behind the right specification of striker—hopefully that is Sturridge, but if not another intelligent, dynamic and pacy forward in-sync with Coutinho's style of play must be acquired.
Those three conditions are vital to Liverpool finding success with Coutinho as their inspiration in 2015/16.
Give him the right tools, and Coutinho can become world-class in the coming season with Liverpool.
Statistics via WhoScored.com.