Why Liverpool and Saints target Coutinho is worth the fuss
Former Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez got many things wrong during his spell at Inter. Brought in to replace José Mourinho, he inherited a squad of players resistant to change and still entirely loyal to the charismatic Portuguese coach. The majority of his mistakes have been laid bare this week by Marco Materazzi, with the Spaniard unable to offer a convincing rebuttal.
Rewind to the earliest days of his Inter reign, however – even before he asked for Mourinho’s portrait to be removed from the training ground – and Benítez undoubtedly got one thing right. Less than 10 days after landing in Milan, he attended a press conference to present current Liverpool and Southampton target Philippe Coutinho as an Inter player – calling him “an exciting young player with lots of quality.” Benítez added: “He can be the future of the club and we expect him to do very well,” and while the Brazilian may not yet have fulfilled this promise, he has continually improved.
The Nerazzurri stole a march on the competition five years ago by paying €4m for the precocious talents of the then 16-year-old. Coutinho would remain with Vasco de Gama until 2010, but made a superb start to life in Italy under Benítez, becoming the one player to break into the treble-winning team in the immediate post-Mourinho era. His form dipped after Benítez was sacked; never truly earning the trust of subsequent coaches, he was loaned to Espanyol last January. Feeling integral to the team there, he excelled, netting five goals in 16 league games before returning to Inter in the summer. Despite not being a regular starter under Andrea Stramaccioni this season, he has been used wisely, netting two goals in 15 appearances.
Should Inter decide to sell, it won’t be due to a lack of belief in Coutinho, but rather further recognition that the club could be in a position to fall foul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. It is no surprise that they have shed so many high-earning players – Wesley Sneijder, Thiago Motta and Julio Cesar – and any fee for Coutinho would further ease those worries. Talk has it that Inter want as much as €13m for the 20-year-old – a price Liverpool seem apparently reluctant to meet, but Southampton, now led by Coutinho’s former Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino, will – and it’s easy to see the impact that a player with his attributes could bring.
Able to play wide on either flank and behind the striker, Coutinho is blessed with incredible pace, skill and creativity. Interested observers should look beyond the eye-catching dribbles and step-overs that pepper the highlights reels, and see the unexpected efficiency in his play.
In netting seven goals over the past year he has taken just 40 shots, which stands comparison with almost any player. Often viewed as selfish, he has created 25 goal-scoring opportunities for his team-mates in the same period, while completing 77 per cent of his passes – mirroring the contribution of Liverpool’s in-form striker Luis Suárez this term. Moving to a team such as Brendan Rodgers’, with a desire to retain possession and constantly move the ball, would only improve that rate, while his accurate crossing would be a major asset in the Premier League.
Despite being just 5ft 7in, Coutinho has improved physically thanks to an intelligent training programme that took care not to harm his natural attributes and has left him much more difficult to dispossess. As such, he has conceded possession just 10 times this season. He has also proven to be adept at pressing defensively, winning 1.8 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per game during his time in La Liga. Those numbers dwarf similar players, with Carlos Tévez averaging 0.8 and 0.5 per game respectively, despite his reputation as a hard-working forward.
Coutinho is already married and seen as mature beyond his years – Stramaccioni recently told Sky Italia: “It’s hard to believe he’s only 20.” And while he still has much to learn, nobody knows that more than the player himself, telling reporters who compared him to some of his more famous compatriots he is “just Coutinho, a kid who’s getting better.”
At that inaugural press conference, Coutinho stated, “I want settle in as soon as possible,” going on to add that he was “a new face who must show what I can do.” He could achieve this in England – and there would be a certain irony in seeing him fulfil Benítez’s early prophesy at Anfield.
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