With Daniel Sturridge highly unlikely to be relied upon for a whole season and the Europa League hopefuls not able to attract a first-grade European striker any time soon, much of the Liverpool’s hope for next season will be down to one man. Most of the creative responsibility, and increasing goalscoring burden to boot, will rest on Philippe Coutinho. The irony of Liverpool’s most important player being one of Brendan Rodgers’ cheaper signings is apparent, but simply the reality right now.
Whereas the Reds have relied on forwards like Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez to bag close to or over 20 goals, even the likes of Peter Crouch and Dirk Kuyt to bag double digits, it would be an achievement in itself should any one of Sturridge, Divock Origi or new signing Danny Ings be able to reach at least 10. Granted, a fully fit Sturridge will easily be able to hit 15 or more, and Ings did reach double digits with relegated Burnley last season. Yet there is no guarantee Sturridge can stay fit after his November return – a solid one-third of the season in – while it is unclear whether the step up for Ings, and Origi, will be too much.
This is why Coutinho will be ever so key to Rodgers’ hopes of breaking into the top four next season, and achieving last season’s target of one trophy. Among Suarez’s supporting cast of two seasons ago, only Coutinho has found a way to thrive since the Uruguayan’s departure. Raheem Sterling’s end product is still very much hit-and-miss, while Sturridge just couldn’t string a run of games together. Coutinho, though, upped his game to last the full 90 minutes and added a few more goals to his repertoire. With his development continuing during the summer’s Copa America, Coutinho will hope to overcome any fatigue and use this momentum to bring his game to the next level. The Brazilian can only do this if the team is built around him, and here are four ways Rodgers can do that.
3-4-3 with Wing-backs
The only third of last season when Rodgers found success was when he deployed three at the back and three up front, or sort of. Coutinho and the other attacking midfielder, usually Lallana, were given free reign to do whatever behind the main striker. It seemed that Rodgers finally found a formation which Coutinho could do his best work, with added options of either wing-backs, a forward running Henderson, or even the striker running in behind the defence, to pick out from.
This formation could still work next season with the confirmed new arrivals and potential signings, as either Ings or Origi would have the desire and pace to assume the striker role effectively, harassing opposition defenders and making runs behind the defence, which would free up more space in between the opposition’s back four and midfield for Coutinho and the other attacking midfielder. The front three could also morph into deploying Coutinho behind two strikers. The arrival of James Milner would also likely mean that Milner and Henderson would take turns making those runs past the main striker(s) that are vital to this system’s offensive threat.
This formation almost hauled the Reds over the finishing line in May 2014, and is one that Rodgers might consider, should he manage to acquire another striker of sufficient quality. At the tip of the diamond would almost certainly be Coutinho, and like the previous formation, the Brazilian would have Milner and Henderson, maybe even Emre Can, supporting him. The two English internationals would take turns making forward runs, and both, along with the bottom of the diamond, would provide the safety net for Coutinho to freely roam around the final third. Rodgers could start with specialist defensive midfielder Lucas at the base of the diamond, or should there be a need for a more attacking threat, the manager could introduce or opt for Can to provide the forward drive from deep.
Two of Sturridge, Ings, Origi and another possible arrival would take turns to drop deep to link up with the Brazilian, with the other making a run in behind the defence. Both forwards could even provide the long options for Coutinho, helping divert the attention of opposition defenders away from the Brazilian just enough for him to effectively dictate play in the opposition half.
The most commonly used formation in recent times, with Jose Mourinho’s champions using this to good effect for the first half of last season. Rodgers will choose his two wide forwards or wingers from Jordon Ibe, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, and Sterling should he stay, but one thing certain is that Coutinho must be the man behind the centre forward.
The Brazilian’s starting position will vary according to those of the wingers, as Rodgers simply cannot afford to have three players so advanced, leaving little support for a possible midfield duo of Milner and Henderson. As athletic as the two Englishmen may be, Rodgers will want either Coutinho or the two wingers to drop back whenever possession is turned over. Going forward though, the emphasis would be that there needs to be at least three players in the opposition’s area awaiting a delivery. Too often in seasons’ past, Liverpool would only have one striker in the box; only a supremely pinpoint cross would give that player any chance of connecting with the cross, let alone score. Rodgers needs to be brave and encourage his players to flood the box whenever going forward, so as to increase the odds one will connect and hit the back of the net.
That magic number of three will usually be the main striker, one of the two central midfielders and the winger off-the-ball on the other flank. With his lack of physique and playmaking abilities, Coutinho would remain outside the box to sweep up any clearances and sustain the pressure on the opposition.
Lopsided 4-3-3 / 4-5-1
The most intriguing and exciting option for Rodgers is to deploy a lopsided 4-3-3. Between the two attacking midfielders supporting the main striker, one acts as a touchline-hugging winger and the other stays inside. Seeing how Coutinho thrived in the inside-left channel, the Brazilian should be deployed from the left, giving him total freedom to gravitate and even stay in the middle just behind the striker, with possibly Jordon Ibe holding the width.
A supremely athletic midfield trio would be vital to support this lopsided formation. A possible combination of Milner, Can and Henderson would do nicely. Milner’s ability to play as a wide-man or winger would be key to this formation’s success. Though he will start in on the left side of a midfield three, Milner will be tasked with overlapping down the left and even providing some width at times, especially when Coutinho drifts into the middle to conduct play. Can and Henderson will hold the midfield and take turns to move forward, but it is likely that the latter would make his trademark runs forward to support Ibe.
This formation might even help benefit last summer’s signing Alberto Moreno. The Spaniard has not yet replicated the offensive forays known from his Sevilla days at Anfield, and the lopsided nature of this formation would give Moreno more license to attack from left-back, with Milner, and even Can, providing the defensive cover on the Reds’ left side.
Fundamentally, the main theme of all four formations is the fact that Coutinho must play in a more advanced and central role, allowed to do almost anything he so wishes, in order to get the most out of the Brazilian, which in turn would bring the best out of this Liverpool side. No longer can Rodgers deploy Coutinho in central midfield or out wide, as it undoubtedly mitigates his threat and ultimately the Reds’ overall ability going forward. With the transfer market unlikely to bring players of superstar quality who can instantly and singlehandedly pull the Reds up, Rodgers has to build his team around the side’s best player. No doubt that man is Philippe Coutinho.