Category Archives: Player analysis

Why Philippe Coutinho is Liverpool’s Most Important Player This Season

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

Amidst all the posturing from Luis Suarez and the public relations moves by Steven Gerrard during Liverpool’s preseason tour of Asia, the convincing wins and the classy performances of their new star Philippe Coutinho have perhaps gone under the radar.

In the media, the Liverpool headlines are on Suarez’s future at Anfield, or on further speculation of the next signings to arrive at the club. And abroad, it was all about Gerrard and manager Brendan Rodgers, and how the club conducted themselves during the whirlwind tour of Jakarta, Melbourne and Bangkok.

Whisper it quietly, but Liverpool have got themselves going in professional fashion this summer. The early signings in June might have petered out into an unsteady July, ending with a slightly controversial loan move for Pepe Reina to Napoli, but Liverpool have nonetheless strengthened their squad.

Four clean sheets in four preseason friendlies, all won with respectable margins, shows a new-found efficiency about the Reds, with the players focused on doing the job with minimal fuss and keeping an eye on their defensive responsibilities.

A quick comparison with Manchester United’s nine goals conceded in five preseason fixtures under David Moyes shows not only the stability that a year brings for a new manager, but also the importance of a settled squad enjoying their responsibilities and their football.

And spearheading the Reds into an exciting new era is their young Brazilian wearing No. 10, signed only in January from Internazionale, aged still 21.

Simply put, Coutinho has got it all: dribbling ability, pace, acceleration, work rate, composure, creativity, flair, an eye for a telling pass, innate understanding of his position, match-winning unpredictability.

Even the usual worries for a South American player arriving in the Premier League were allayed instantly: he started his Liverpool career with a bang, and finished the second half of the 2012-13 season with that same bang, notching three goals and five assists in just 12 starts. There were no signs of him struggling with the long-infamous physical side of the English game, and in the process he made himself known as a master of the through-ball.

Worries about “second-season syndrome”? So far unfounded, after a thrilling series of performances in Liverpool’s preseason, with three goals in just four matches. Since Luis Suarez’s competitive ban towards the end of last season,Coutinho has assumed the central attacking playmaker role—the No. 10 role—effortlessly.

Which means, even if Suarez stays at Liverpool, he will face a fight on his hands to retake his favored role behind Daniel Sturridge (or another option like IagoAspas, depending on Sturridge’s injury status) from Coutinho.

Rodgers has claimed, via the Mirror, that he structured his team around Suarez last season in a bid to keep his No. 7 at Anfield. On current evidence, Coutinhohas already shouldered much of that burden, and the way Liverpool’s attacks have been channeled through him this preseason suggests the Brazilian prodigy is now the focal point of the Reds’ attack.

So what’s next for the youngster who was let go by Inter for just £8 million? The easy answer is that the only way is up and the world is at his feet.

While Suarez still recorded an impressive season last year and was Liverpool’s undisputed player of the season, it was their January signings Sturridge andCoutinho that settled the squad’s nerves in front of goal, and pushed them towards a pacy, technical and dynamic attacking style.

Suarez’s public flirtations with Arsenal and Real Madrid this offseason have harmed relations with his fans and manager. While Gerrard has scored two goals this preseason and looks to be storming back to full fitness, he is alas 33 and will be orchestrating and influencing play from his new deep-lying position.

Which leaves Coutinho as the new talisman, the new provider of match-winning brilliance, the new fan favorite—already reflected through this season’s shirt sales, according to the Daily Mail. (Edit: Steven Gerrard has since resumed his usual No. 1 place on the list, but the point still stands.)

And Liverpool’s most important player coming into the 2013-14 season?

If he manages to sustain his form over 38 Premier League games and moves Liverpool back into the top four, don’t be surprised to see Coutinho in the running for both the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year awards come next May.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

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Jordon Ibe: First-Team Player or Liverpool Loanee?

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 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

With four new signings confirmed in June, Liverpool entered their July period with, by and large, a healthy squad, and until their defeat against Celtic in Dublin on Saturday, the Reds had won all six of their friendlies, scoring 17 goals and letting in only one.

Slightly unusually for a Liverpool preseason, not many fringe players got a run-out during the seven matches. The group that toured Asia with the club mainly consisted of the tried-and-trusted first-team contingent, including the four new signings. All of them had made sizeable appearances for the first team before, bar one.

Jordon Ibe, signed from Wycombe Wanderers in December 2011, was the jarring exception.

The 17-year-old winger, who had only made his senior debut in May with a productive start against Queens Park Rangers, where he notched the only assist of the game for Philippe Coutinho’s long-range strike, traveled with the first team.

Not only that—he figured prominently and finished the seven-game schedule as one of the most impressive performers over the preseason period.

Scoring his first ever senior goal in the first preseason match against Preston North End, Ibe never looked back as he displayed pace, power and raw ability with a series of exciting performances that showed just why he is so highly rated in the corridors of Melwood.

Indeed, his most exhilarating contribution was his burst of pace and subsequent pass that set up Oussama Assaidi and Raheem Sterling for a simple finish in Indonesia.

The question now is whether Jordon Ibe is good enough to become a member of the first team this season or if he should spend time out on loan to gain experience elsewhere.

Ibe the Loanee

Let’s first consider the case for Ibe the loanee.

The most immediate rationale for Ibe going out on loan—be it to a team in the Championship or in the Premier League—is his young age and lack of top-flight experience.

At just 17, Ibe has plenty of years in front of him, and a season honing his skills to deal with the physicality of top-level English football would do him plenty of good.

Just ask Jonjo Shelvey, who spent the first half of the 2011/12 season on loan at Blackpool: Shelvey scored six goals in just 10 appearances for the Seasiders, was recalled amid an injury crisis and went on to become an important squad player for the next year. (Ultimately, he didn’t fit Brendan Rodgers’ plans and was sold to Swansea City this summer, but that should not be a deterrent here.)

A season away from Anfield at a club that could grant him regular playing time could prove vital in his development. This kind of thinking would presumably be behind the recent loan departures of young left-back Jack Robinson and midfielder Suso to Blackpool and La Liga new boys Almeria, respectively.

In a squad that currently boasts a host of options in Ibe’s attacking midfield position—Raheem Sterling, Iago Aspas, Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Oussama Assaidi, Luis Alberto, Fabio Borini, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are all capable of playing there—the No. 44 may find his first-team chances limited in his first full season in the Liverpool senior team, to cup and substitute appearances.

To ensure his development isn’t stunted on the bench, Rodgers may well consider sending Ibe out on loan.

Ibe the First-Team Player

But with the raw speed, dribbling and ability to excite that Ibe has in abundance, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wanting the young prospect to fly down the Anfield wings and terrorize opposition defenders.

And it is this combination of raw ability that sets Ibe apart: None of his direct rivals in the first team have such an impressive combination of physical attributes, and those who have the pace (like Coutinho) may not marry it with the dominant physique that Ibe also has.

Does this mean there might be a place for him in Rodgers’ first-team squad?

Given current rumors, it would be unrealistic to assume that both Downing and Suarez will still be at the club by September, and given that Rodgers prefers using Sturridge and Borini as out-and-out strikers and Gerrard in a more withdrawn playmaking role, Ibe could well fit in as a squad player whose unique attributes will grant him playing time.

After all, it was comfort on the ball, pace, dribbling and upper-body strength that saw Raheem Sterling become a key member of the Reds XI just a year ago, albeit in an injury-stretched squad—and Sterling earned rave reviews and an England call-up to boot.

Against lower-table teams who might have a tendency to play more defensively and to sit back and deny space to Rodgers’ possession-based footballing approach, Ibe could be another option that provides the cutting edge that Liverpool have sorely lacked in recent seasons, another outlet on the flanks, another potential source of goals, and perhaps even another match-winner.

Any concerns that Ibe would be overexposed at such a young age—Sterling himself burned out after a sustained period in the first team and found himself out of the team in the second half of last season—should be dispelled after Rodgers’ experience with Sterling.

At any rate, the additions of Aspas and Alberto, two seemingly immediate squad players, have upgraded the quality of the bench in that area of the pitch, which should ensure more necessary balance in first-team appearances across the board.

Conclusion

And it is under this premise that we will conclude for now that Jordon Ibe deserves a run in the first team, an arrangement that could end up working well for all parties.

Ibe could get further chances to shine and make a difference, while Brendan Rodgers will have another potential match-winner with a unique set of abilities at his disposal over the course of the season.

Things could change in the remaining weeks of the summer transfer window, of course: Liverpool could end up letting go of two attacking players and getting none, making Ibe a more essential keep, or they could also sign one of the multitude of players currently linked to Anfield.

At the time of writing, however, all signs point to Jordon Ibe enjoying a productive spell of first-team football, not at somewhere else on loan, but as a Liverpool player.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.