On the 10th of August 2014 Liverpool football club beat Borussia Dortmund 4-0 in a seemingly irrelevant friendly at Anfield. On that particular Sunday the sun shone long and radiant along the Merseyside turf. A wonderful atmosphere of cordiality enveloped the crowd where both Liverpool and Dortmund fans alike shared in the pre-match traditional chorus of Gerry and the Pacemakers’s You’ll Never Walk Alone.
A surprisingly large crowd was drawn to Anfield that August Sunday. Both sets of fans could tell of their team’s love of beautiful football – passing, movement, fluidity and flair. It was on that lazy August Sunday, when families came together to share in a summer’s day of friendly and careless football, that Philippe Coutinho played his greatest ever game of football.
Coutinho himself is an enigma of a player. He can at times seem like the second coming of an unborn hybrid of Riquelme and Garrincha reincarnated. Other times he will convince you that he was sent off within the first five minutes of a game, for he is nowhere to be seen. On these occasions he is often times in the way. Or not tracking back. Or misplacing a place. Or not tracking back. (You get the idea)
As bizarre as it seems, one would not be alone in thinking that Coutinho, every six months, makes a conscious decision to either play outstandingly well to the point of some divine inspiration, or secondly, will decide to simply not play at all to the point where his manager has no option but to drop him to the substitutes bench.
In the friendly game against Dortmund at Anfield, Coutinho was a man possessed. Like King Medas, seemingly everything he touched turned to footballing gold. Every pass was inch perfect. Each dribble was inventive and necessary. He scored, he assisted, he beat his marker, he brought out the best of his teammates. He flicked the ball, he dummied, he made runs behind the opponent’s defence. He outshone every one of the other twenty-one players on the pitch that day.
Coutinho’s first five months at Liverpool were majestic. Brought in alongside Daniel Sturridge in January 2013 for a fee of £12 million, he lit up Anfield in an otherwise underwhelming season that culminated in a seventh place finish. At this time he was only 20 years old and showed incredible promise and maturity in the Premier League having come from the much slower and static Serie A. It was this ease of transition that caught the eye with Coutinho initially. Linking up with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge looked devoid of effort for the most part.
Coutinho’s play is so instinctively natural that he does not seem to have to think with the ball at his feet. He lives off instinct in that he can sense a pass and create a through ball other players simply do not see. He knows when to hold onto the ball long enough to allow players in support to make their runs and when he does make his pass it is, for the most part, perfectly weighted.
His dribbles are so Brazilian it goes beyond cliché. He uses body checks, shoulder drops, step-overs and intelligently knows when to use his body to throw his marker one way so that he can expose the space created on the other.
But then there are his negative aspects. And the disappointment that is the negative baggage with Coutinho, is that his set-backs are equal to his glimpses of genius. As seen most obviously in Wayne Rooney’s opening goal in Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, Coutinho does not track back. The defensive contribution of Coutinho to Liverpool is minimal and often times simply non-existent.
Elsewhere, although his dribbling is one of his better qualities, Coutinho often takes too much out of the ball and will attempt to beat another man when he has beaten two already, leading him to scramble after a loose touch that gives the ball to the opposition.
This season has been the most extreme case of Coutinho’s schizophrenia on the pitch. His split personalities between a lone source of inspiration to a Liverpool team in need of creativity, and a frustrating slacker that seems to refuse to make the most of the talent bestowed upon him. Following on from last season, Coutinho continued in his position of a creative midfielder in a 4-3-3 alongside Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard. This seemed like an ideal position for the Brazilian as the deep nature of his positioning allowed him oceans of space with which he could dribble into in order to create opportunities for his strikers.
However from August up until the game against Manchester United Coutinho underperformed immensely. There was no spark and no inventiveness in his play whatsoever. But, since Brendan Rodgers’s reshuffle that has seen Liverpool play with a 3-4-3 with Coutinho and Lallana as wide trequartistas with Raheem Sterling acting as a false-nine, Philippe Coutinho has been utterly outstanding.
On his game, Coutinho can organise the rhythm of the game. Setting the tempo, he instantly becomes synched in with his teammates, knowing where they are going to run. In recent games, against Bournemouth, Swansea and Leicester he has dominated the opposition, reigniting the spark and utter chaos that Liverpool unleashed against opponents in the second half of last season.
But only in glimpses.
For the sad reality that Coutinho must overcome is a run of consistency in his performances. As of now he is in one of his hot-streaks where his creativity flows out of him with zealous ease and fearless serenity. But when he is not on his game, he is difficult to watch, as his talent and expertise are layed aside to rot. His moments of genius are real and intended but they are irregular and not consistent enough to consider him one of football’s elite. A seasonal genius, still only 22 years old, the future of Philippe Coutinho is lit by a flickering candlelight of his own artistic possession.