It seems crude to boil Philippe Coutinho down to mere statistics, but here’s one: on average he has scored or set up a goal roughly every 84 minutes in the league this season.
For context, Kevin De Bruyne has managed that every 95 minutes, Eden Hazard every 115, Alexis Sanchez every 101. The only two players to have a better rate than Coutinho are Diego Costa with 81, and Romelu Lukaku with a shade under 84.
Both of those men’s totals are weighted towards goals (nine and seven respectively), so you could argue that Coutinho, with five of each, makes a greater all-round contribution to his team. You could argue he is the most influential player in the division this season.
But you don’t need to bother with statistics to appreciate Coutinho, just to watch him. His is a delicate form of grace, a man who plays on his tiptoes and in sport that seems to be dominated by physicality rather than simply skill, he stands out.
Good chess players are always thinking a few moves ahead. Their problem is they can think as many ahead as they like, but they can only make one at a time. Coutinho is similar, but he not only thinks two or three moves forwards, he can carry all that out in one, before his opponent has had time to think.
On Sunday, as Liverpool demolished an admittedly pliant Watford side 6-1 to go top of the table, above Pep Guardiola’s vaunted Manchester City and Antonio Conte’s rampant Chelsea, Coutinho provided a distillation of why he’s so good, and why he’s such a pleasure to watch.
His ability to both control the ball, move it away from a defender and into a position of danger in one touch, is one held by only a few. And it’s one of the reasons he’s both devastatingly effective, wonderful to watch and why Liverpool are top of the Premier League for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
That move, one that he makes look implausibly easy, appeared a couple of times on Sunday, once to create a shot that zipped just wide of the post, once to shift a couple of defenders back on to their heels as he drove in Liverpool’s second. At first glance you thought Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes should have done better with his compatriot’s low shot from the edge of the area, but after watching it again you realise the Brazilian took the shot a fraction of a second before most would have. Again, he’s a couple of moves ahead of everyone else, his mind as nimble as his feet.
“The manager asks us to move a lot and that’s what we tried to do in the game and create space for our teammates,” said Coutinho after the game, and he’s the perfect player for that approach, creating space for himself and helping others exploit it too. Liverpool’s front four is a terrifying prospect at the moment, helping them to 30 goals from 11 games; 19 goals and 15 assists between them this season. They scored four and set up five against Watford. Coutinho may be part of an orchestra, but he’s lead violin.
Colleagues will always praise one of their own team, but it’s worth listening to how effusive the Liverpool players are about the 24-year-old.
“If you see on the training pitch and in the training sessions, he is not just a good footballer, he is a fighter, he wants to work for the team,” said Emre Can last week, saying it’s “an honour” to play with Coutinho.
“Philippe is a magician,” said Roberto Firmino. “We think the same way. We know what we’re going to do before possessing the ball.”
“In my opinion he’s the best player in the league at the moment,” said Dejan Lovren.
After the win over Crystal Palace on Oct. 29, Jurgen Klopp deadpanned that Coutinho was a “good football player,” then when pressed for something more effusive, offered “a very good football player.” After that, he shrugged as if there were no more superlatives worth offering.
There are any number of reasons why Coutinho might have found some consistency this season, when previously he’s been capable of frustrating, drifting out of games and popping up with the odd brilliant moment to remind us how good he could be. The most obvious is that clicking front four, the rippling quartet of brilliance that is him, Firmino, Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana. Their seamless teamwork augments the excellence of all four, but particularly Coutinho.
The lack of European football could be a factor too. Much has been made of Liverpool and Chelsea’s clear midweeks being an advantage to their league form, which is probably true, but it also could be why players like Coutinho and Hazard look so refreshed this season. Modern football demands that even creative types work hard, so the more rest they have, the sparkier they are likely to be.
“Coutinho is a great player,” said Neymar recently. “I’d play with him at Barca.”
While affirmation from one of the world’s biggest clubs is not always a sure sign of quality, the way Coutinho is playing at the moment suggests he wouldn’t look out of place with Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. But for now, he’s leading his own fearsome attacking troupe.
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