Coutinho has more often than not played in an advanced midfield role – ‘in the hole’ – whilst at Liverpool, however with new additions to the squad such as James Milner (and probably others to come), coupled with the fact that he was utilised in some different positions last season and performed well in those roles, means there could be some room for manoeuvre in terms of where he features in the upcoming campaign.
It is perhaps unknown to some Liverpool supporters that whilst at Inter Milan Coutinho was often deployed as a left-winger by Rafa Benitez and when playing in this position he was actually expected to fulfil defensive responsibilities; typical of Rafa! The position did not really suit him and neither did the slow-pace of the Italian game. He would position himself as wide as possible, maximising his chances of receiving a pass, but when in possession he had an overwhelming tendency to drift inside – very rarely would he work the channel and deliver a cross. This was probably symptomatic of his desire to play more centrally and also because he favours using his natural right-foot. Although this was not his best position, he did sometimes manage to hurt teams by running inside, dragging opponents with him, and feeding diagonal through-balls into the box. Benitez often switched Coutinho to the right-wing, but, in truth, this position did not suit him much either; he tended to not play as wide when on the right of midfield, but was still persistent in driving through the middle instead of trying to beat the full-back down the line.
Coutinho continued to play in a wide-left position when loaned to Espanyol, but his performances improved a lot when playing in La Liga under Mauricio Pochettino. How did the Brazilian manage to improve his game whilst playing in the same position that didn’t seem to suit him at Inter? Possibly because of the pace of the Spanish game: whilst by no means as fast as the Premier League, it is certainly played at a higher tempo that the very slow-paced Italian game. At Espanyol he also varied his approach, not being so one-dimensional with regards to coming inside with the ball and would occasionally mix-it-up by taking players on and reaching the by-line. Whatever the cause of his improved performance in this role, Coutinho was certainly effective and although he is unlikely to be deployed in this position at Liverpool, it is nonetheless, another option and could perhaps be utilised to exploit opposition weaknesses depending on the nature of particular games.
The Brazilian’s game further developed when he joined Liverpool, his improvements seeming to run in tandem with the increasing speeds of the leagues he was playing in. However, as well as the underlying style of play in England, there have been other contributing factors to his development: his positional amendments amongst these contributions. Rodgers has actually played Coutinho in a variety of positions during his time at Anfield, although he has tended to predominate with an attacking midfield role for our number 10. This role is perhaps his best and some of his most effective performances have come from him playing in this area of the pitch. His remarkable vision and excellent technical abilities seem to come together in a perfect orchestration of skill and execution when playing in attacking midfield – he has scored some wonderful goals and created others with clever assists.
However, Coutinho has performed well in other positions for Liverpool too. In the 2013/14 campaign, he sometimes played in a deeper position and was able to be creative and effective in this area of the pitch as well. Our 5-1 hammering of Arsenal at Anfield last season is a notable example of the Brazilian performing well from deeper in the pitch. He hustled and harried the Arsenal midfield that day and played a number of key passes which put Liverpool on the front foot, including an excellent assist for Sturridge’s goal.
As well as playing deeper, Coutinho has also been tasked with playing further up the pitch than his usual ‘in the hole’ role. The Brazilian won performance of the season for his excellent display against Manchester City at Anfield in the last campaign, but, in my opinion, his best game was actually in the 2-0 over Newcastle. On that particular night, Coutinho was deployed in a ‘false 9′ role: the trademark Lionel Messi position. Our number 10 performed exquisitely, his link-up play with Sterling and Henderson was pulling the Newcastle defenders out of their comfort zones and his trickery was optimised. However, Coutinho was deputising for the lack of strikers on the night, and it would probably be counter-productive to utilise him in this position if Sturridge or Ings were both fit. Nonetheless, in the event of injuries to our strikers he could be an effective alternative.
Coutinho’s versatility is a strong feature of his game, and an asset to Liverpool. His best position his probably in an attacking midfield role, but, it is worth considering what other areas of the pitch he could be effective from; may it be from a deeper position or in a false 9 role. Regardless of where he plays, lets hope the Brazilian continues to perform as he has been doing and helps the team win some silverware.