The Brazilian has dazzled since the turn of the year for Liverpool, after two years of working towards making it happen consistently. Alex Hess evaluates his ascent...
- Date of birth: June 12, 1992
- Place of birth: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Height: 5ft 7in
- Former clubs: Vasco da Gama, Inter, Espanyol (loan)
- Liverpool: 88 apps, 13 goals
- Brazil: 5 caps, 0 goals
There are a great many benefits that the digital age has bestowed on the modern-day football fan – rafts of information, endless coverage, numerous platforms for discussion – but an imbued sense of patience is probably not one of them.
If clubs at the top level are often chastised for their short-termism, the charge can also be levelled at a generation of fans. Too often, we demand immediate rewards when there are none to be had.
It’s something to bear in mind when appreciating the magnificent recent form of Philippe Coutinho, who has spent the opening months of 2015 transforming himself from maddening midfielder to dependable difference maker. Sunday's blistering long-ranger against Manchester City was his second in as many weeks.
Coutinho, who could run the length of a beach without leaving a footprint, has long promised much but only partly delivered. But now the patience is beginning to pay off.
Until his recent heroics, the youngster had earned himself a reputation for being too wasteful. It has generally been a valid criticism, but one rarely followed up with the equally valid caveat that he was young and still learning. It's easy to forget, given that he's played nearly 200 games across four countries and two continents, that Coutinho is only 22. And that even in this modern age of under-15 YouTube sensations and 30-goal-a-season Football Manager wonderkids, a 22-year-old footballer is still in his formative years.
To put that in context, when Roberto Baggio was the same age, he had made roughly 100 appearances in a first-team shirt, half of them in Italy's third tier. Pavel Nedved had just six senior goals to his name. Thierry Henry was a middling bit-parter at Juventus.
Coutinho, meanwhile, has tasted regular action for two of Europe’s most high-profile clubs, played a half-season in a third major European league and spent a couple more years as a fawned-over teenage prodigy in his homeland. Now he finally appears to be reaping the benefits of a settled employer.
Sharp shooter at last
If there has been a single key ingredient to his recent progress, then it’s the obvious one: Coutinho has finally started scoring. Time and again at Liverpool, his lack of goals – 10 in two years before last month – has been deemed inadequate for someone donning his No.10 shirt, and displaying his obvious talent.
Indeed, Coutinho’s baffling inability to shoot had become a running joke among Anfield regulars. If there was no better player at wriggling into a half-yard of space on the edge of the box, then there were surely few worse at striking the ball cleanly. For such a capable technician, it seemed absurd that his shooting was less David Beckham than Diana Ross.
Fortunately, it wasn’t just the fans who were getting exasperated: as Kopites were busy writing off e-numbers and full-fat milk for the New Year, Coutinho made a resolution of his own. “There are always so many things to improve,” he admitted on January 29. “I’ve been working on improving my goal tally as I understand this as being part of my role. I expect to do better on this. Whenever possible, I have post-training sessions to work on improving my shooting accuracy.”
As any Shania Twain fan will tell you, talking the talk is the easy part. But since uttering those words, Coutinho has gone on to score three goals in seven games. Since the turn of the year, his shots-to-goals ratio has more than halved, from one in 11 hitting the net to exactly one in five. The sample size may only be small, but so far his actions prove his words were anything but empty.
Such a straightforward route to betterment might well demand the question: if that was all it needed, then what on earth took him so long? But that would be missing the point. This is what happens with young players: they identify flaws, they practise, they improve.
Besides, goals from midfield are no easy thing and often arrive in the manner of water tumbling through floodgates. Frank Lampard, believe it or not, never managed double figures in league season until his ninth attempt, while Steven Gerrard was a one-in-nine player until he upped his rate notably at the start of the 2004/05 season, aged 24. He’s since scored 155 in 462.
Whenever possible, I have post-training sessions to work on improving my shooting accuracy
As well as goals, Coutinho’s more general inconsistency has long frustrated. When he moved to Merseyside at the start of of 2013, the Brazilian hit the ground at breakneck speed and spent the season’s latter months dazzling Premier League defences with stepovers, feints and threaded passes. Such productivity has since resurfaced for spells – not least right now – but it’s also been punctuated by periods when such incision has proved elusive.
Again, such inconsistency can be ascribed to Coutinho’s youth. But there’s another misconception at work, too. In many ways, to demand consistency from a pure playmaker of his ilk is to misunderstand the very essence of the position. It is the precise remit of such players to always be attempting the most difficult moves, in the least amount of space, under the most pressure.
Because their game relies on the whirring cogs around them, No.10s also tend only to play well when their team is on form. Reporting on the 2002 World Cup Final, The Guardian's David Lacey described Brazil's two great creators, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, as “isolated” and “cut off from their source”. It is the playmaker's occupational hazard: ability will not automatically equate to effectiveness.
But this isn't to say that Coutinho's shimmering recent form has been at all arbitrary. Brendan Rodgers was roundly snickered at last weekend when he explained how the Brazilian’s rabbit-from-a-hat wondergoal at St Mary’s was the direct result of his own new-look tactics, thank you very much.
But while it might indeed be a bit rich to praise a tweaking of the midfield diamond for one of your attackers walloping one in the top corner from 30 yards, Rodgers’ broader point was perhaps a valid one: Coutinho’s upsurge in form has directly coincided with his team’s tactical reshuffle.
While his own role as a roving central creator – nominally playing from the left – has remained largely unchanged during Liverpool’s move to a 3-4-3, the key difference is that he has been flanked by a wing-back on his outside. With an extra body steaming down each touchline, Liverpool's pitch has broadened a tad, and for Coutinho, this translates to having that little bit of extra room with which to cut inside.
And the Brazilian is a master at precisely that move – specialising in his ability to create another yard almost by not playing the pass, instead waiting an extra second for the space to open up.
Which all brings us back to patience. It is rare that a top-level player arrives in the job looking the part straight away. Not every forward can march off the bench against Arsenal aged 16, stick one in the top corner and never look back. Far more often, the path to excellence passes through thickets of inconsistency and imperfection.
Coutinho's current form is proof that it's a path worth trekking. It's hard to name a Premier League player who has outperformed the Brazilian since the turn of the year, and he boasts a genuine range of raw materials with which to realise his clear potential. Most creators have technique but lack tenacity. Coutinho, though, combines the dexterity of Miss Marple with the doggedness of Philip Marlowe: he has averaged more tackles this season than Angel Di Maria and David Silva combined.
Quite where the boundaries to Coutinho’s achievements lie is uncertain, but on recent evidence he is capable of hitting some truly stratospheric heights. The key is to let him get there in his own time.
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