Clubs do not usually sell their top players in January without a very good reason. Liverpool, locked in a tight top four race and looking forward to a relatively easy Champions League knockout tie against Porto, would seem if anything to have reason not to sell. But sell they did, sending Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for an incredible 140 million. The reason for the sale, as reported, were less about any football reason that Coutinho was not needed, but rather that the Brazilian attacker had gone on strike and demanded the move. Liverpool acquiesced. The question for the Reds now is how to adjust to the loss of Coutinho and keep their excellent season moving along.
Liverpool’s last two matches show that the Coutinho question is highly contextual. On the one hand, Liverpool beat Manchester City without Coutinho. So this team is still capable of beating just about anyone in the world. But then the Reds went and lost to Swansea City. It was not a bad performance, and Liverpool had several chances to win the game, but the ball progression maps of their midfielders show that they struggled to get penetration into the penalty area for most of the match.
And it is precisely that sort of ball progression that is Coutinho’s specialty. Last season Coutinho averaged about six progressive passes or runs per 90 minutes—the statistic is defined as a pass or run that progresses the ball over 10 yards past its furthest point forward in the move, or moves the ball into the 18-yard box. The only players with better numbers were Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and City’s David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Elite creators like Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard fell short of Coutinho, with just about five progressive passes or runs per match. This season Coutinho has improved, leading the league in progressive passes and runs with about 7.5 per 90 minutes. De Bruyne and Silva trail him with around 7 per 90.
What Coutinho offers, then, is the sort of elite ball progression that can break down a packed, organized defense. While Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana both have put up reasonably good passing numbers, neither rates among the best of the best. Unless Liverpool make a big splash on the January market, they will most likely need to do without the peculiar skills that Countinho provides, and Jurgen Klopp will need to devise a different Plan B for breaking down packed defenses.
The Manchester City victory, however, militates against any rushed purchases or January overpayments. Given room to work in the open field by a high-pressing City side, Liverpool’s forwards ran rampant. They could break at pace into the final third or the penalty area because there was room to work. Where Liverpool may feel the loss of Coutinho is in matches like Monday’s, where an opponent sets out to stifle their attack and refuses to take the sort of attacking risks that could lead to dangerous attacks but could also disrupt their defensive shape. It may be only for a subset of the club’s matches that Coutinho’s absence is truly felt, and for those matches other options may be available.
Liverpool’s most creative attacker on Monday was new center back Virgil Van Dijk, who assisted two of the Reds’ three best scoring chances.
While Van Dijk surely cannot replicate this performance weekly, he does point to a possible solution for Liverpool short of a new purchase. In matches where the opposition packs in deep, unexpected players can join the attack. Liverpool will need more complex plans or scripted moves to bring these additional attackers into play, but for the precise matches where Coutinho is needed, one can imagine new tactical solutions building on the skills of Liverpool’s defenders. The loss of Coutinho then is a problem, but it looks like a limited and soluble one.