Coutinho making big difference to Liverpool's double thrust
Brazilian playmaker is only 5ft 7in but he is making his presence felt as Liverpool go for league and FA Cup glory
According to statisticians, Philippe Coutinho has attempted 44 through-balls this season, more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues. That is not to say all his passes reach their target or result in goals. Statistics can be deceptive like that. But Arsenal know to their cost that some of them do.
Liverpool's Brazilian playmaker looked the real deal in the 5-1 mauling of the then league leaders last week – Brendan Rodgers described him as the key to the whole performance – and, if Luiz Felipe Scolari is so well blessed with midfield quality that he can continue to overlook the 21-year-old in his pre-World Cup Brazil squads, then it might be a shrewd move to put some early money on a home win in this summer's tournament.
Arsenal will be hoping not to go a goal down inside a minute when the two sides meet again in the FA Cup on Sunday afternoon but they will also be terrified of leaving space behind their back line for Coutinho to exploit.
Liverpool have a front line of pace and finishing ability in Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez, and Coutinho is becoming expert at picking up their runs now that he has moved into what Rodgers refers to as a No8 position, rather than a No10. "We are currently playing with two attacking players in midfield and one holder," Rodgers explained. "We've got the best passer in the league in Steven Gerrard, a technician in Philippe, who can thread and ping it through with his passing, and a runner [Jordan Henderson] who can penetrate and run without the ball. So the balance is good. It is very important to our style to dominate the central midfield and Stevie and Philippe have taken us to an incredible performance level."
Considering the sums of money that recently changed hands for Juan Mata and Mesut Özil it seems hard to believe that Liverpool prized the Brazilian from Internazionale's grasp for a mere £8.5m. "He was a snip, we just had to have him," Rodgers said. "He's an absolutely wonderful talent. There are very few players at this level that penetrate with a pass, that play right through a team, but Philippe is the sort of player who puts opponents on the back foot all the time.
"He doesn't always get there but we like him to keep looking. He's only young, he's got plenty of time. I think his age might have worked against him in Italy, where they notoriously don't play young players. Inter signed him then kept him at Vasco da Gama for two years until he was 18. When I saw him he was playing alongside Wesley Sneijder and he looked top-class but he couldn't get a regular game. Then Inter had to move some players because of finance. I had inquired about him a few times and when we got the shout that they might be prepared to do business we did everything we could to get him in."
Only 5ft 7in and slightly built, Coutinho showed in his tussle with Jack Wilshere last week that he is not pushed off the ball easily and has the requisite aggression for the English game. "You could see that wee bit of steel he's got to his game," Rodgers said. "Irrespective of his height he has the physical strength to press with intensity and, if you speak to him, he will tell you he has really worked on his defensive qualities too."
Coutinho certainly will. He quickly realised he had to be more of a team player than an attacking luxury and managed to change . "Rafa Benítez helped me quite a lot with that when I was still at Inter," Coutinho said. "In Brazil, if you play where I do, you are not expected to track back or defend in any way. You are an attacker and that's it. Only technically are you part of a team. I have to say I prefer the European style now.
"You move faster, think more quickly and are involved more. I felt comfortable at Liverpool straight away, the team has been playing with a great amount of freedom in attack and perhaps that is why I was able to adapt to English football quite quickly."
Coutinho's idol is Ronaldinho, scourge of England in the 2002 World Cup, but to Rodgers' mind he most resembles another skilled technician who made light of a diminutive frame. "When I worked at Chelsea I had the privilege of watching Deco at close quarters," Rodgers said. "He was a bit older perhaps, but what a talent. All I need tell you is that he got a round of applause after his first training session. I can still remember that, because it was just pure quality, and that is what Philippe has. That's the profile. He's a little street footballer with wonderful vision. The type of player that can make the difference.
"Top players always like to know there are other top players around them and you could tell after a few training sessions that Philippe belongs in that category. Steven Gerrard probably never knew a great deal about him beforehand but straightaway I could tell he was impressed and you can see the trust they now have on the pitch.
"Stevie knows he can lend Philippe the ball and Philippe knows he has that security and solidity behind him. I've taken a bit of stick since I've been here over my vision of where I want the club to be but the game against Arsenal was beautiful for a coach to watch. You could see the evolution; it made me very proud. Everyone looked at Arsenal and said they weren't very good but we were brilliant. Those games don't come around very often and I am not expecting the same in the Cup. We want to win all right but this time I'll settle for one-nil."
Copyright - The Observer