Coutinho’s Brazilian panache drives red revival at expectant Anfield
Liverpool’s €10m purchase represents smart business
Philippe Coutinho looks perplexed. It is not an expression associated with the Brazilian since he helped enlighten the Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool seven months ago, but one that hammers home that a new chapter has begun in the rivalry with Manchester United.
Confusion reigns when Coutinho is asked whether he knew of David Moyes before his arrival in England. “What?” is the reply. Try again. Before coming to England, did you know who David Moyes was? “Who?” One last go. David Moyes? “No.”
Coutinho is not trying to deliberately insult someone who for the first few months of his Liverpool career was the manager of Everton. Indeed, it is clear the 21-year-old is an artist of the game and not a student, preferring to illuminate with the ball at his feet.
“I don’t remember watching United win any cups,” he says at one point. “I remember they won the Premier League last season. That is as far back as I know.”
Only four of the Liverpool team who maintained a 100 per cent start to the season at Aston Villa last weekend were alive when Ron Atkinson’s United secured a 1-1 draw at Anfield on February 9th 1986 – Kolo Toure, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Steven Gerrard. The rest are from the generation who saw Liverpool knocked from their perch by Ferguson.
However with him gone, Anfield hopes to witness a way back. It will not be easy, admits Coutinho, even against a United manager who never won at Anfield in 11 years as Everton boss.
“I think United will carry on as usual because they have the same great players,” says the Liverpool midfielder. “Only the manager is new and I’m sure they want to win as much as they ever did . . . We want to make up for the time lost and want to get back at them and winning this match will help us do that. We feel exactly the same as they do about this game.”
With another incendiary figure from the fixture’s history absent tomorrow, suspended Luis Suarez, Coutinho is central to a Liverpool victory that could reverberate throughout their season. From his full debut in a 5-0 defeat of Swansea City, the €10 million January recruit from Internazionale has brought greater purpose, invention and penetration to Liverpool’s attacking play under Rodgers.
Coutinho was rich potential unfulfilled in Italy, where he made only 15 starts in Serie A following a much-heralded arrival as a 16-year-old from Vasco da Gama. He spent a season on loan at Mauricio Pochettino’s Espanyol. But now he is the riposte that the owners of Liverpool, Fenway Sports Group, can present to criticism of their prudent transfer policy, and the manager’s eye for a player after spending €30 million on Joe Allen and Fabio Borini.
“I know the expectations are higher on me now because I’ve played more matches and done well,” says Coutinho. “But I need to keep improving . . . You can give no advantage to the opposition player and that’s how I intend to approach this game against United.
“I’ve not had the chance to play United yet. But from what I have been told about the history between the clubs, it’s even more passionate and stronger than the Milan derby.
“Football is more disputed in England than it is in Italy. Every match is a very hard match because the referee doesn’t blow his whistle as much as in Italy and every team plays against each other like it is a final. I enjoy it more in England because you have to think quicker. The pace of the game is faster so you don’t have much time to think.”
Fulcrum of attack
The Liverpool manager handed Coutinho the responsibility of the No 10 shirt when he arrived in January and sees his future as the pivotal point of the team’s attack, hence the desire to sign a left winger before Monday’s transfer deadline. The one reservation over Coutinho so far has been the ability to impose himself against the stronger teams of the Premier League, with anonymous displays against Chelsea and Tottenham last season ending in substitution.
He accepts the criticism.
“I know that last season against Chelsea I did not do as well as I should but that’s all in the past now,” he says. “It’s a new season and I think it will be different for me this time. That Chelsea game was very intense, all the players were close to each other and I found it hard to get into the rhythm of the game. Now I have had the experience, I know what to do to be prepared for matches like this and play better. That’s what I aim to do.”
The signings of Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge helped elevate Liverpool’s form from January onwards last season, with the pair establishing an instant rapport that has demonstrated the Brazilian’s ingenuity with a pass and the striker’s accuracy with the finish. Despite a few problems with the language barrier, it is a relationship that also flourishes off the pitch.
“Daniel is an excellent player and always makes his runs at the right time,” says Coutinho.
“I think he’s similar to a Brazilian player because he is so quick with the ball at his feet. He has the qualities to be a Brazilian player . . . He is always looking to teach me things to help us combine better on the pitch, but in English. Last week he did it against Aston Villa. Once Luis is back – and I think he is at the same level as Neymar – he and Daniel will help us a lot.”