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Before moving to Barcelona for £142m, Philippe Coutinho was arguably Liverpool’s best player in December.
He scored four and made another five goals in just six starts, hitting the back of the net from set pieces, picking out the top corner from outside of the box and at the end of mazy, Messi-esque runs.
With the January transfer window open for a further three weeks, it remains to be seen whether Liverpool will bring in reinforcements or rely on their current squad to replace the hole left by his departure.
How will Liverpool cope without him?
Ordinarily, four goals and five assists in six starts would win a Player of the Month award, but Coutinho was overshadowed by Mohamed Salah, who scooped up the PFA’s Player of the Month award for a second time in a row.
The Egyptian forward scored five and made three in December, adding to his seven goals in four games from the month before.
Coutinho missed both the West Ham and Stoke games in November but that did not affect Salah who still managed to score a brace in each.
Coutinho’s role in the team is one of bringing the ball from deep and drawing defenders away from his teammates with the threat of his long-range shooting.
He also features heavily on Liverpool’s right-footed set-pieces and even tucked away the Reds’ latest penalty effortlessly with a cool panenka chip.
A player worth £142m will always leave a hole in the team but Coutinho actually missed eight games in the league this season and Liverpool won six of them.
Liverpool’s record with and without Coutinho
In fact, Liverpool’s record without Coutinho is far greater than with him. Coutinho has started 13 Premier League games for Liverpool, winning six, drawing six and losing one. Without him, they have won six, drawn one and lost another.
Their goals per game also drops with him in the team, from 2.33 per game to 2.23 a game.
But did Liverpool do better without Coutinho because their fixture were easier? Against the top-six, Liverpool beat Arsenal (H) and lost to Manchester City (A) without Coutinho. He also missed games against Watford (A), Crystal Palace (H), Huddersfield (H), West Ham (A), Stoke (A) and Burnley (A).
With him in the team, they failed to beat the remaining top-six teams; losing to Spurs (A) and drawing with Manchester United (H), Spurs (A), Chelsea (H) and Arsenal (A).
Interestingly, although Coutinho only scored against Arsenal (A) from the big boys this year, he has stepped up against Arsenal in previous years, scoring four goals in nine against them. Citizens must dread playing seeing the midfielder, who has been directly involved in six goals in just seven games against Manchester City.
Why are Liverpool better without Coutinho?
So Liverpool can still score and win without their talisman, but who has been providing the goals when Liverpool have been Coutinho-less?
Mohamed Salah has been the player of the season so far, scoring 17 goals to date in the league. Without Coutinho on the ball, Salah is able to get on the ball more and shoot more often. His shots per game rise to 4.93 from 4.48 without Coutinho and unsurprisingly, this leads to more goals. Salah scored six goals in seven games without him (0.86 goals/game) compared to 10 goals in 13 together (0.78). (Salah’s 17th goal was against Everton where Coutinho only played 12 minutes).
Meanwhile, Sadio Mane has failed to score when sharing a pitch with Coutinho this season. Although he has only scored five goals in 13 starts.
Compatriot Roberto Firmino suffers the most in Coutinho’s absence. The Brazilian duo have linked up superbly in December, with three of Firmino’s six goals in the month being directly assisted by Coutinho.
Without him, Firmino’s shots per game fall from 2.95 to 2.1 per game and consequently his goals per game fall from 0.59 to 0.45 a game.
The sample size remains too small to say that Liverpool are better off without Coutinho, but is anyone in the current squad capable of filling the hole in the squad left by Coutinho?
Who can step up?
Mane has been an important player in Liverpool’s last two games, scoring one and assisting another in two closely fought 2-1 victories over Leicester and Burnley.
Before that however, the Senegalese winger was benched in half of the six games prior. Coutinho was playing in Mane’s favoured left-wing position, so now Mane is the favourite to reclaim the left-wing berth. Coutinho has scored the most goals from outside the box in the league since his debut at the club (19).
His threat from range will be missed, as Sadio Mane only averages 0.77 shots per game from outside the box compared with Coutinho’s 3.16 shots per game from outside the box.
Adam Lallana started in the number 10 position in his first start of the season during Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Burnley. His positional flexibility and directness makes him the most like for like replacement in the Liverpool squad, and while Liverpool’s Mr Tumnus provides the most forward passes of any other Liverpool attacker, he is actually down in chances created per 90. (Although Liverpool’s attacking juggernaut has improved greatly this year so his stats should be taken with a grain of salt).
If Lallana can match Coutinho’s creativity, then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can match his speed on the ball. Coutinho has averaged 4.6 dribbles per game this year and successfully takes on an opponent 3.16 times per 90. The Ox has a more successful time dribbling however, completing 62% of his 2.5 dribbles per game.
There remains three weeks for Liverpool to spend the Coutinho money, or what’s left of it after making Virgin van Dijk the most expensive defender ever at £75m. With their ability to score and win without him, and with the recent form of Mane, Lallana and Chamberlain, Liverpool might be able to wait until the summer to find a long-term replacement for Coutinho.
In terms of fantasy, it’s clear you should stay away from Firmino with Coutinho gone but Salah, Mane and possibly Lallana could be worth investing in as they look to fill the £142m void left by Coutinho.