How Jurgen Klopp plans to alter Philippe Coutinho's role in Liverpool's starting XI for next season
Luis Suarez and Neymar might not be scouts but they know talent when they see it and they also understand the standards that are required for a player to succeed at the Nou Camp, which was a cause for concern to Liverpool before Philippe Coutinho signed a new contract given the pair have been beseeching Barcelona to sign the Brazilian.
While Neymar has gone public on his desire, Suarez, a former Liverpool player, has kept his recommendation private but is equally emphatic in his belief that Coutinho would thrive in La Liga.
Such talk is commonplace in football regardless of a growing commitment to analytic-based recruitment models, and the pursuit of the Premier League’s most outstanding performers by Barcelona or Real Madrid is also nothing new, but what is different this time around is Liverpool appear prepared for such interest.
Rather than contemplating what they would do without Coutinho should Barcelona move for him this summer, their planning at present revolves around how the team should evolve and improve with him in it.
As well as the obvious short-term need to win a crucial match, that was part of the long-term thinking behind Jurgen Klopp’s decision to play Coutinho in a more withdrawn, more central role in Liverpool’s 4-0 win at West Ham United on Sunday.
It is also one of the reasons why Liverpool’s manager is looking to recruit at least one more attacker this summer as he looks to give himself of the option of being able to deploy Coutinho as a No 8, a move that he believes would improve his team’s creativity and their penetration against those opponents who set up to frustrate them.
While Coutinho is undoubtedly part of the proposed solution in this respect, there have been occasions when he has been part of the problem.
Against well-organised defences that sit deep and are protected by a midfield that does likewise, Coutinho has sometimes been unable to make a positive difference for various reasons, and given how fundamental his form is to Liverpool’s that is a situation that Klopp feels he needs to address this summer.
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The theory is that by adding more variety, pace and direct movement in attacking positions, Coutinho will be better able to open up defences in the manner that saw him create Daniel Sturridge’s goal against West Ham.
That was the reason why Klopp described Coutinho as “a playmaker” after that game; in his vision of how Liverpool will evolve over the next 12 months, the former Inter Milan player has a central role to play symbolically but also, when the occasion demands it, in a positional sense.
How Klopp, Coutinho and Liverpool reached this point amounts to a combination of individual and team development but is also the culmination of a process in which strengths and weaknesses have been identified ahead of a summer which, should their ambitions be realised, has the potential to be the most pivotal in the club’s recent history.
Tellingly, the retention and utilisation of Coutinho has been fundamental to those developments, with his status as primus inter pares in the Liverpool dressing room having been underlined during a period when he was actually unable to play through injury.
It was in those months either side of Christmas when he recovered from an ankle ligament injury that Klopp set about convincing the 24-year-old not only that his future lay at Anfield regardless of interest from elsewhere, but that he could become one of the leaders of a revolution that the Liverpool manager believes will eventually lead to glory.
The setting for those discussions was Klopp’s office overlooking the pitches at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground and the aim was to persuade Coutinho to buy into a long-term vision for himself and his club.
In one sense, this amounted to a pre-emptive strike on Klopp’s behalf as although he was aware that Barcelona were keeping a watching brief on the Brazilian, there had been no formal expressions of interest, as still remains the case, and there had been no indications from Coutinho, publicly or privately, that he might have been looking to leave.
Recognising that Coutinho has a talent that requires cultivation and devotion, Klopp set about presenting his protégé with a plan for how his career will continue to progress if he remained with Liverpool.
Fundamental to his message was the depiction of Coutinho as the main catalyst for revival, as the figure around whom great things will happen. “Stay here,” Klopp told him “and they will end up building a statue in your honour. Go somewhere else, to Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to Real Madrid, and you will be just another player. Here you can be something more.”
The weakness with that argument is, of course, is, as Steven Gerrard will know better than most, being a small fish in a big pond at one of European football’s superpowers will almost always yield more success than being a big fish in a smaller pond.
Recognising that, Klopp set about impressing on Coutinho that where Liverpool are now, fighting to be in the Champions League rather than challenging to win it, is not where they will be in the future. Holding his left hand up high to illustrate where Barcelona, Bayern and Real are now and his right hand lower to demonstrate where Liverpool are currently, he then explained how he intends to close the gap over the coming seasons while moving both hands together.
Key to Klopp’s case was his belief that Liverpool have made more progress than their current league position suggests and that it will be accelerated still further once he has been able to strengthen his squad.
It was, to all intents and purposes, a sales pitch and Coutinho bought into it.
Inevitably, he also recognised that if his presence was considered so crucial to his manager’s vision such a pivotal role should be recognised contractually. With his agent, Kia Joorabchian, already involved in discussions over a new deal, Coutinho discovered that he was pushing at an open door and reciprocated Liverpool’s offer to make him the club’s highest-paid player by seeking no clauses that would make it easier for a rival to prise him away.
When the five-year contract was signed and announced on January 25, Klopp’s charm offensive had its formal vindication. In keeping with his oft-repeated mantra that “it makes sense to keep good players,” he also had a symbol of a philosophy in which retaining talent for as long as possible is crucial to achieving long-term goals.
Had he chosen to, Coutinho could have listened to his manager, looked at the league table, taken into account Liverpool’s recent lack of success and waited to see if Barcelona or anyone else came in for him this summer. Instead, he committed himself to Klopp’s vision and in doing so made himself a keystone in his manager’s future plans.
But while Klopp is ready and willing to deploy Coutinho centrally going forward, that is viewed as an option rather than a permanent change of position. Ideally, Red Bull Leipzig’s Naby Keita would operate as a number eight in the team that Klopp hopes to be able to put together for next season and should he sign, something that remains an ambition rather than a foregone conclusion at this stage,
Coutinho would continue to play regularly in a fluid front three. The main thing for Liverpool, though, is not where Coutinho plays, it is that they have put themselves in a position in which his immediate future appears wedded to theirs. Should their march towards a return to the Champions League continue on Sunday, Coutinho will have no cause for second thoughts.