An undated page in one of my many notebooks (each filled with musings and observations sometimes related to football) says this:

Coutinho – space is the place!

I’m not sure entirely when or why I wrote that. But whatever the reason, the words came back to me while watching Coutinho’s recent performance against Manchester City. Because it’s true – for Philippe Coutinho, space is indeed the place.

***

The 2011 U-20 World Cup arrived at an auspicious time for Brazil fans. The senior team had just crashed out of the Copa America, and neither veterans like Robinho and Lucio, nor young up-and-comers like Neymar and Ganso, had played particularly well. All attention turned to the next crop of talent. Ney Franco’s side was well-stocked, featuring Danilo of Santos, Oscar of Internacional, and Casemiro of Sao Paulo. But the most heralded player was undoubtedly Philippe Coutinho, who at eighteen years old had made a high profile move to Inter only a year before.

The tournament started well for him. A penalty against Austria and a brace versus Panama meant he was Brazil’s leading scorer through the group stage. But as the opposition toughened, Coutinho wilted. Occasional flashes of inspiration couldn’t quite cover up long stretches of ineffectiveness. He was routinely subbed in favor of Dudu, who was less flashy but offered more penetration. All Coutinho seemed capable of were flicks that didn’t come off or showy passes to seemingly no one. Attention rightfully turned to Oscar, who capped off a good tournament with an outstanding hat trick in the final.[1]

Coutinho came in for a fair amount of criticism on the old Brazil World Cup Blog for his uninspired performances. But personally, I remained intrigued by what I saw. Not long afterwards, I said that he was Brazil’s second most talented prospect after Neymar.[2] I didn’t have any evidence to back it up, but that’s what my eyes told me.

The reason I liked him so much is because you could tell he saw possibilities that most other players didn’t see. If you looked closely at every errant pass or ill-conceived dribble, you could understand why he tried it. The opening was there – it was just too small or closed too fast for him to capitalize on it. His eyes saw what was possible, his mind knew what had to be done…but his body just wasn’t ready yet. In other words, the talent was there, but the skill wasn’t. They are two different things, talent and skill. The former greatly aids the latter, but it’s possible to have one without the other. Coutinho certainly did. He had the talent to know what could be done…he just couldn’t do it yet.

Coutinho’s other problem was his lack of sound judgment. He could see possibilities, yes. He was willing to take risks, certainly. But he couldn’t distinguish between the good opportunities from the false. The risks worth taking versus the risks better left avoided. Since his eyes could always spot the spectacular option, he always went for the spectacular…even when the safer option was clearly the better one.

But that, I reasoned, could be fixed with time. He just needed what no amount of talent could provide: experience.

***

He wasn’t to get much experience in Italy, as a post-Mourinho Inter vacillated between short-term success and building for the long-term. A brief loan to Espanyol demonstrated Coutinho’s talent, but soon he was back at the San Siro, struggling for playing time. Meanwhile, Oscar staked the #10 shirt as his own, and Coutinho was left out in the cold. Between the end of the 2011 U-20 World Cup and Dunga’s return, Coutinho failed to feature even once in yellow…at any level.

Then came the move to Liverpool.

Many pundits predicted he would struggle, but instead, he was an almost immediate hit. Stationed primarily on the left wing, but with license to drift into the center, Coutinho found a niche: the thru-ball. With Luis Suarez leading the attack, Coutinho had plenty of opportunities to thread balls through the heart of an opponent’s defense for Suarez or Daniel Sturridge to run onto. Soon, the whole world was aware of his passing ability. Philippe Coutinho, it seemed, was about to explode.

Except he didn’t.

Since joining Liverpool, Coutinho’s career has been one of a few scattered peaks punctuated by long, uneventful plateaus. A wonderful pre-season, followed by a nondescript October. A brilliant game around Christmas time, then three solid months without a goal. The stop-and-start nature of his game has made it all but impossible to know what he really is. A world-class talent, certainly, but there are many of those. A luxury player? A firework that burns brightly for a few seconds but never really lasts? A man-child who can be gambled on to change the course of a game, but never depended on to dominate it?

Or something more?

***

Sometime in October 2014, I finished work early and was able to catch a Cup game between Liverpool and – I think – Swansea. It was a fine autumn day and I should have spent it raking leaves, but I hadn’t seen Coutinho play in some time and couldn’t resist the temptation.

Here’s what I wrote in my notebook:

  • Coutinho…looks aggressive! But has to pick his spots. Is giving the ball away too much
  • Amazing how much Liverpool relies on him sans Suarez, Sturridge. To get balls into final third, it’s either Coutinho or the long ball!
  • STOP SHOOTING, GODDAMMIT
  • Activity level from Coutinho is very high. He wants to be the man, here
  • Not getting much support
  • He loves attacking the open spaces on the pitch – dribbles, passes, doesn’t matter.
  • Still going for the spectacular too often. Needs more patience, learn to play simply.
  • Middle of the second half and Coutinho is fading. Not seeing as much from him now
  • End of game. Coutinho both good/bad. Good: Liverpool’s most aggressive player. Good: got a man sent off. Good: assisted Lovren’s winning goal with a solid cross. Bad: tried to do too much, most of which just didn’t come off. Generates a lot of heat but surprisingly little light.
  • He’s still the same player (sigh)

You just got a sneak peek into the disorderly lumber-room that is my mind. But what I saw was this: a player who was Liverpool’s sole source of creativity, or rather, Liverpool’s only player who was really committed to playing creatively. But also a player who, in the end, was merely throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. He looked busy and buzzing but surprisingly toothless. Towards the end, he was able to get a man sent off as well as assist the winning goal, securing a win Liverpool desperately needed at the time. A decisive performance, then, but also a very flawed one.

He clearly had buckets of talent. But he still looked like the same player I watched back in 2011. He was unquestionably better, of course – how could he not be after three years? But fundamentally the same. I came away from the match neither more hopeful nor more skeptical than before. I wasn’t going to sell any of my Coutinho stock, but I wasn’t planning to buy any more, either.[3]

I would have had I known his stock would jump again around the turn of the New Year.

***

With Suarez gone, Sturridge injured, Balotelli flopping and Sterling still raw, Liverpool was staring a disastrous season square in the face. All dreams of winning the league, gone. Dropping out of Champions League contention looked likely.

Coutinho stepped up.

Good performances against Swansea and Leicester bookended the New Year’s holiday nicely.  A splendid turn against West Ham.  A hiccup against Everton didn’t deter him from this stunning strike against Southampton, who like Liverpool are battling for a Champions League spot. Coutinho put in Man of the Match-level performances in the Capital One Cup as well, outplaying Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea both home and away.

In each of these games, you can spot a common thread: Coutinho drifts into the center to find space to collect the ball, then charges forward.  He’s in many ways the perfect #10 for the Premier League because everything he does is done at a very fast pace.  His dribbling skills and balance have improved enough where it’s very hard to knock him off the ball, allowing him the time to pick out a runner and thread thru-ball after thru-ball for his teammates.  His one-touch passes and vision makes him a threat whenever he approaches the penalty box, and indeed many of his finest moments seem to come late in matches as the opposing defense begins to fatigue mentally.  There really isn’t another Brazilian like him in the world today.  Roberto Firmino has a similar touch and may be an even more efficient dribbler, but doesn’t play at the same pace when running with the ball and isn’t quite the playmaker, although he has Coutinho beat in other areas.  Lucas is even faster and more electric as a dribbler, but has nowhere near Coutinho’s vision.  Felipe Anderson is more powerfully built and a far better finisher but his overall style is much different than the diminutive, hyperactive player of Anfield.

Next came City.

The Mancunians arrived needing points as badly as Liverpool did, although for different reasons. The stage was set for a dramatic clash between red and blue.

Let’s look at how Coutinho did with a retroactive live blog of the match:

Time Description
1st touch an assured pluck out of the air
Next touch, tries to flick the ball around Zabaleta but is unsuccessful. However, he immediately harries Zabaleta in attempt to win the ball back
8th minute Perfectly-weighted splitting pass to a breaking Lallana
9th minute Coutinho launches a counter-attack. City manage to stymie it, but the ball is loose.   Coutinho recovers the ball (off the official, no less). A few seconds later, hustles well to keep the ball from going out for a goal kick.   Turns, feeds Lallana right down the goal-line. Lallana scores but is ruled offsides.
11th minute Coutinho nicks ball off Kompany, then lays off to Sterling. Sterling spreads wide to Henderson, who evades Fernandinho and scores a thunderbolt.
13th minute Coutinho collects the ball between the lines and fires an ambition shot that goes over the bar. A prelude for what is to come.

 

If you watch the match, you will notice two things about Coutinho thus far:

  • He is working his ass off to recover the ball
  • City’s positioning plays perfectly into Coutinho’s hands. Because Toure keeps moving forward, and because City’s slow back-line of Kompany and Demechelis are positioned relatively deep, Fernandinho is left alone to cover acres of space between the lines. And as we will discuss in a moment, space is the place for Coutinho.

 

Time Description
20th minute Coutinho applies defensive pressure again and forces City to give up the ball. Coutinho then plays a wonderfully casual 1st time flick to leave Zabaleta in his tracks.
22nd minute My favorite moment of the match. Coutinho receives the ball deep in his own half with his back to the opponent’s goal. As he is receiving the ball, he peeks quickly over his shoulder to spot Zabaleta bearing down on him. His response is gorgeous. With his first touch, he redirects the ball around Zabaleta and races forward, leaving the Argentine for dead. Then, Coutinho plays a gorgeous pass with the outside of his right foot to find Sterling.[4]

jlb9k

The reason this was my favorite moment is because it reminded me of Coutinho back in 2011. Remember how I said he was constantly trying flicks that didn’t come off?

Well, now they’re coming off.

He still needs to polish this area of his game, but my early prediction has started to come true. In 2011, Coutinho could see the opening but couldn’t exploit it. Now, with more experience playing top-level football, he finally has the skill to pull off what his raw talent could only attempt.

Let’s keep going:

Time Description
25th minute Coutinho’s ambitious pass from a deep position is intercepted, when a simple one would have served him better. While Coutinho’s mistake didn’t directly lead to City’s goal, they did score on the ensuing possession.
43rd minute Coutinho attempts another long-range shot. This one is on target but straight at Joe Hart.   It’s frustrating because he had the opportunity to probe for something better.
44th minute Coutinho loses the ball to Fernandinho, but immediately wins it back and spreads to Sterling. I can’t stress enough how impressed I am by this.
45th minute Coutinho with a spectacular pass to Lallana! Lallana back-heels to Sterling. Fernandinho defends the wunderkind well to prevent him from getting off the first time shot. Coutinho screams for Sterling to pass back, but is ignored.
End of 1st half Coutinho heads to the locker room, oozing class all the way

 

Two things stand out from that first half. It’s not Coutinho’s forward passing. We always knew that was his specialty. It’s not his first touch or close control, though both look more confident with each passing month. It’s not even about any flicks or bits of skill he displayed.

The two things that stood out to me were this:

  • His effort to recover the ball and/or keep it in play
  • His ability to use space

Coutinho, in many respects, looks like a classic playmaker of old, but he is no languid artist, concerned with painting thru-ball masterpieces and little else. He has greatly improved his defensive output, as noted by Michael Cox in this piece.[5] More than that, though, Coutinho’s willingness to go out and get the ball shows a kind of basic, primal hunger that has perhaps been too lacking among Brazilian playmakers over the past ten years. His pressing is still a bit erratic, still a bit inconsistent – you get the sense that he has to keep reminding himself of the need to do it – but his willingness is the key point.

Now, let’s talk about Space.

When defining Philippe Coutinho’s game; when attempting to describe exactly what he brings to the table; when determining who he is and what he’s all about, I truly feel the best summation is this:

Philippe Coutinho’s purpose as a footballer is to find and exploit space.

This is his greatest strength. It’s why his passing skills are such a joy to watch. Like a hyper-scented guard dog, Coutinho is constantly on the alert for teammates in space. As soon as he spots them, BANG! He’s sending a pass their way. Sometimes he does this too much. Sometimes – the old problem – he doesn’t always factor in whether there’s enough space to work with. He’s the footballing equivalent of a heat-seeking missile, if you turn heat into space and missile into thru-ball. It’s what makes him so dangerous.

He doesn’t just exploit space through passing. His dribbling is also designed to exploit those spaces.

Coutinho’s a talented dribbler, but still an unpolished one. His close control can be glorious, but it can also be erratic. His bag of tricks is useful but not quite as varied as you might expect. His acceleration on the ball is good, but he’s not an amazing athlete and certainly no speed merchant.

Where he shines as a dribbler, again, is by proactively exploiting space. He beats defenders by seeing where they are not, then moving there while they are still reacting to where he currently is. To paraphrase Johan Cruyff, the player who moves first will usually arrive before the player who moves faster. At his best, that describes Coutinho to a T.

This moment against Fernandinho demonstrates what I’m talking about:

jlben

Finally, and most importantly, is Coutinho’s positioning. Pay attention next time you watch a Liverpool match. When Liverpool wins possession, Coutinho will almost always move into a vacant space where he can receive the ball. By constantly making himself available to receive the ball, he guarantees himself the chance to do something with it.

This is not a common skill.

Let’s see how Coutinho did during the second half:

Time Description
52nd minute Coutinho receives ball about 25 yards out. His first touch immediately takes him into space, forcing City to react. As City’s defenders converge, he feigns a shot, then slips the ball into the box for Lallana.
53rd minute Coutinho receives ball and immediately plays in the overlapping Moreno running into space.
54th minute Coutinho with good delivery into the box on a set piece. The ball falls to Skrtel but he is whistled for a foul.
55th minute Coutinho again finds space to collect the ball between Toure and Fernandinho. He runs forward into – yep, you guessed it, space – and evades the isolated Fernandinho with a simple feint. But his thru-ball to Henderson is blocked.

 

See what I mean?

Time Description
58th minute Wonderful turn to split Fernandinho and Nasri.   Nasri brings him down and receives a booking for his efforts.
60th minute Coutinho’s affinity for the spectacular can still cause problems. Here, he is too ambitious with a thru-ball to Moreno. There just wasn’t enough of an opening to merit the attempt.
60-70 After a scintillating hour of football, Coutinho’s stamina starts to wane. His touch begins letting him down, and his overall energy level has decreased noticeably.
GOAL! Coutinho is not shy about trying to curl the ball into the far corner, Kaka-style.   In fact, it may be the only shot he is truly comfortable taking. Here, he gets it right on the third attempt to score a truly spectacular match-winner.
88th minute Coutinho has another chance to score from almost the same spot, but this time his shot is deflected out for a corner.

 

Where does Coutinho go from here?

Coutinho is still not the finished article.  Despite the enormous strides he has taken, there are still elements of his game that need a lot of attention. Briefly:

  • He’s added a wicked curveball from the left-shoulder of the 18-yard box to his arsenal, but his finishing on basically every other type of shot remains woefully substandard. He either strikes the ball far too tamely, or else goes for power and ends up shooting wildly. Every great attacking midfielder in Brazil’s history, from Zizinho to Didi, from Rivelino to Zico and Socrates, from Rivaldo to Ronaldinho to Kaka, has been a good goal-scorer in addition to a good playmaker. If Coutinho wants to join their ranks, he’ll have to become similarly well-rounded.
  • Falling in love with shots from distance. Coutinho has proven he can hit these, but he has a tendency to look for them too much.
  • He’s no Mesut Ozil, but Coutinho has a tendency to fade in the second half of matches as he loses energy. While he’s certainly not out of shape, he needs to take his fitness to the next level.
  • This is still a major problem. He’s still prone to the odd shocking game where nothing seems to come off. His touch is awkward, and his passing goes from deft to desperate. But it’s not just week-to-week consistency. Can he play an entire season at a high level as opposed to a few months? He hasn’t proven that he can yet.
  • Adapting to the national team. As much as I wish it were different, I expect Coutinho to come off the bench through the Copa America, no matter what he does for Liverpool. Dunga has proven, time and time again, that your club form may win you a place on the team, but it’s your performance in the yellow shirt that matters. Dunga puts a huge premium on players who (in his eye) seize their opportunity at first offering, especially if that opportunity is limited to a few minutes off the bench. Coutinho can’t afford to “grow into a game.” He’ll need to be focused and ready to play, so that he can impress in whatever short spurts he’s given. For Coutinho, every second on the pitch is an audition.
  • Speaking of adapting, Coutinho will also need to show he can adapt to the international game. For all the hoopla about how “rigorous” and “physical” England is, the Premier League is very much an attacker’s paradise…sometimes almost shockingly so. The average PL match will usually have a lot of space for Coutinho to operate in. English teams put a premium on pace of play, on quick transitions from back to front. Such conditions are a playground for Coutinho. But the international game is much slower, and defense is usually a priority. The worst teams will sit extremely deep; the best will press high up and be incredibly compact. Both can be difficult for a player like Coutinho, who, to reiterate, thrives by finding space. When space is in short supply, he can suffer.

All that said, Coutinho has an impressive track record of answering questions and silencing doubters. Many doubted he could play in England. He proved them wrong. Many doubted he could ever be a reference point for Liverpool. He is proving them wrong. Early in his English career, I pointed out that he feasted on middling teams while struggling against the best opposition. That’s no longer true. He finally looks as good away from Anfield as he does inside its walls.

Coutinho’s career has been full of peaks and plateaus. But the overall trajectory has always been up. If he can continue, or even accelerate, that progress, than Brazil may finally have its playmaker.

And maybe, just maybe, our over-dependence on Neymar will come to an end.

***

That was where my original article ended.  Unfortunately, the latest round of friendlies did little to nothing to improve Coutinho’s standing with the national team.  He didn’t play against France, and lasted only 56 frustrating minutes against an intense Chilean side.

After the match, a few other bloggers commented about how underwhelming they found Coutinho.  I can understand where they are coming from, but I actually thought Coutinho did well with the limited chances he was given against Chile.  Just about everything he did was proactive, aggressive, and bent on getting the ball forward.  More than anyone in the starting lineup, he looked capable of creating something.  He simply didn’t have enough opportunities to due to Chile’s high-pressure, low-space system…just the sort of thing I predicted Coutinho would have trouble with.  It didn’t help that Dunga played Coutinho as a left-winger, with little room for him to drift inside to find pockets of space.

I thought it was a major shame that Coutinho was subbed off just as Chile were beginning to tire somewhat.  Had Coutinho stayed on and been allowed to play with more technical players like Firmino, he may have been able to show off more of what he can do.

In a bizarre way, I actually thought the Chile match proved how much we NEED players like Coutinho.  Pretty much everyone can agree that Brazil’s midfield is too stodgy, too limited, too lacking in technical ability and inspiration.  Pretty much everyone can agree that Brazil have a difficult time coping with the most technically gifted teams.  Pretty much everyone can agree that Brazil have difficulty playing their way out of the back with any consistency.  Pretty much everyone can agree that we’ve relied too much on fullbacks  to advance the ball and create scoring opportunities.  Pretty much everyone can agree that we depend too much on Neymar for moments of quality.  And because all those things are pretty much indisputable facts, isn’t that all the more proof that we need more players like Coutinho, and not less?

Again, Coutinho still has a lot of growing to do.  But by doing everything we can to integrate Coutinho now, by recognizing both our flaws and that Coutinho has the tools to fix them, we would be investing in our own future.  A future that hopefully leads to Brazil once again hoisting the World Cup trophy.  I’m not saying Coutinho should be an automatic starter.  But it’s time to see him for what he is: a very skillful, wonderfully talented, extremely rare commodityPlayers like Coutinho aren’t a luxury.  They are a necessity.  And there’s precious few of them to go around.

The world of football is an international arms race.  Every team with real World Cup aspirations is trying to stock its midfield with playmakers.  Not the old, languid version we typically associate with the word, but dynamic, active, two-way players who speak the language of the ball and seek to possess it at every opportunity.

The world of football is an international arms race.  Brazil would do well to remember that Coutinho is one of their few prospects capable of playing the role of Einstein.

The world of football is an international space race.  In an age of highly disciplined defensive systems, in an age of pressing, in a age full of players more positionally and tactically disciplined than ever before, space is at a premium.  Those teams who are most adept at finding, creating, and exploiting space are the ones best equipped to dominate the era.

The world of football is an international space race.  Brazil would do well to remember that Coutinho is one of their few prospects capable of getting them there.


[1] The whole point of relating this backstory is to demonstrate the importance of patience. It’s taken several years of patient – or not so patient – waiting for Coutinho to come anywhere close to meeting his potential. Oscar discovered his potential early on…but sometimes rediscoveries take even longer. We all know what Oscar is capable of, and I believe he’ll find his way back again.

[2] Frankly, the list of candidates for “second most talented after Neymar” was depressingly short: Coutinho, Ganso, Pato, and Lucas. That was the list. Sadly, it’s even shorter today. If you look at all the Brazilians between the ages of 19 and 24, only Coutinho, Lucas and maybe Felipe Anderson still have a shot at that title.

[3] I do too much writing for people in the financial industry, clearly.

[4] Some time ago, our own Dude_BR noted that I love when midfielders pass with the outside of the boot. It’s true. I think it’s such an underrated skill.

[5] Cox’s article is excellent, as usual. For the record, though, I disagree – quite strongly, in fact –with his overall premise that Coutinho should be played in a deeper position.