Sometimes even games of the stature of the Merseyside Derby can be defined or overshadowed by bit-part players or spectators. Philippe Coutinho was benched for December’s meeting of Liverpool and Everton, emerging only for a cameo a minute after a very different kind of No. 10, Wayne Rooney, thumped in an emphatic equaliser as Jurgen Klopp’s attempt at rotation backfired. Coutinho will sit out Friday’s clash with a minor thigh injury at a time when he appears determined to move to Barcelona.
For now, Coutinho seems in limbo, but if his Liverpool career in effect ended with Saturday’s win over Leicester, it will do so with statistical distinctions: exactly 200 games, 54 goals — an excellent return for one who has never remotely resembled a striker — and 40 assists, showing a capacity to both create and score, plus a probable profit in excess of £100 million. If the measure of the player is Liverpool’s return on an £8.5m investment, he will rank as financially the greatest bit of business the club have done.
From a footballing perspective, he may be the finest Liverpool player, along with Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres, never to win a trophy at Anfield. They reflect a barren streak that has only been interrupted once since 2006; Rafa Benitez’s stalwarts had left before the 2012 League Cup win, while Coutinho joined 10 months after it.
Instead, other measures are required to reflect his achievements; other ways to indicate the difficulty of replacing a unique player. Coutinho was an understated member of the supporting cast to the “SAS” of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, a skilled performer obscured by the romantic element of Steven Gerrard’s temporary return to brilliance, in the first Liverpool side for 118 years to record a century of league goals. That was under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14; later, he became the most elegant member of successive “Fab Fours” united by Klopp, outpaced by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, outrun by Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, but outclassing all of them.
He has twice been named Liverpool’s Player of the Year, once shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award and filled the post-Gerrard and post-Suarez void in a way others were supposed to, albeit with trademark unobtrusiveness. He has not been a ubiquitously forceful personality in their mould; instead, he has both garnished and decided games with brilliance.
Jamie Carragher, a former teammate, once said: “Some of these No. 10s get away with murder.” It referred to their ability to produce artistry, but not productivity. That criticism cannot be levelled at Coutinho. He averages a goal or an assist every 86 minutes in the Premier League this season. He has delivered at key times: the 2016 Europa League quarterfinal against Borussia Dortmund, for instance, when he scored Liverpool’s second goal and set up their equaliser; or the final two games of last season, when he clinched fourth place for Liverpool by scoring three goals and creating another.
Of those 54 Liverpool goals, 16 have come against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham and the Manchester clubs.
A status as a big-game specialist is one way of explaining Barcelona’s pursuit and of Liverpool’s attempts to retain him. Another is that he has scored the most Premier League goals from outside the penalty area: 19, since his arrival in England. He has a rare capacity to do something different and to do it spectacularly.
And, certainly for those of a certain generation, he is something different. Like Mesut Ozil, David Silva and Juan Mata, he is not really a 4-4-2 player. If the first generation of imported No. 10s, spearheaded by Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola, were capable of operating in the main striker’s slipstream, their younger successors have been more alien, men who only really suit more-fluid formations, not the English game’s old tactical straitjacket. They have made the game tactically better. At least to English audiences, they have refined what it means to be a No. 10.
Rooney, before retreating into midfield recently, represented the old model, the second striker as No. 10, but he was also a man who could leave his side outnumbered in midfield when playing in a 4-4-1-1 formation. He is more of a forward in skillset, Coutinho more of a midfielder.
But the Brazilian is the No. 10 who has never really played as a No. 10. His position is rarely fixed, but he tends to slot in towards one flank. He was usually on the left of Liverpool’s front three last season, though he ended on the left of a midfield diamond.
When Salah’s arrival forced a rejig to accommodate all of the “Fab Four,” he sometimes operated on the left of the midfield trio or in a Brazilian-esque 4-2-2-2. Rewind three seasons to when Rodgers introduced a 3-4-2-1 formation that Antonio Conte later aped with greater success at Chelsea and he was often the left of the two inside-forwards. Yet, as his compendium of wonder goals shows, he is right-footed. He was less inverted winger than inverted floater.
It is part of an inimitable package that will render it hard to replicate his contribution if he leaves. In the short term, Liverpool could look to Lallana or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the older man the more technical and the younger, at least with his pace, the more physical, but neither is remotely as prolific or as capable of conjuring a goal out of nothing. Few players can.
It is that blend of technician and magician, of midfielder with a forward’s output, which accounts for Barcelona’s interest and that will make it so tough for Liverpool to find a similar, suitable successor.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.