When Philippe Coutinho signed for Liverpool FC back in January 2013, not only did it signal the arrival of “a proper Brazilian” at the club, but also the belated arrival of a proper Number 10.
Not since the halcyon days of the ‘80s, when a certain John Barnes graced the Anfield turf with 10 on his back, has a player seemed more befitting of the game’s most symbolic number for the red half of Merseyside.
Of course, Barnes was primarily a winger during his imperious best with Liverpool, however the magic that twinkled in his toes, accompanied by his sublime technique and vision, was more akin to the great playmakers who dominated the Europe during that time.
And apart from Luis Garcia’s all too brief stint as an authentic 10 (when used as such by Rafa Benitez – primarily in European fixtures), players in the playmaking mould who have bewitched the Kop down the years have tended to wear the club’s iconic number 7 shirt – Dalglish, Beardsley, McManaman – whilst another exception, Finnish fantasista, Jari Litmanen (criminally underused during his even briefer stay on Merseyside), chose to wear number 37 (3+7=?) as his favoured 10 was occupied by…
Michael Owen shone wearing the Reds’ number 10 as one of the most feared strikers in Europe, whilst the less said about Andriy Voronin, the better. However, Liverpool’s fans perhaps witnessed their biggest false dawn when the ‘mercurial’ Joe Cole arrived on a free transfer and took the vacant shirt number. Here, at last, was a proper playmaker…or so they thought.
With Cole’s long overdue (and expensive) departure – after providing, well not very much – Liverpool fans clamoured for a player who would finally deliver the goods in a role their team seemingly cried out for. I’d asked Brendan Rodgers if a Number 10 was a priority purchase ahead of the January 2013 transfer window, and the LFC manager replied:
You’re spot on, 150%. That’s a priority for me…that clear, creative, top number 10. If the right one’s available I would like to think that we would be in the market [for him]. But that’s certainly an area I believe can help us.
Enter Coutinho, who arrived just one month later at a cost of £8.5 million and was instantly handed the available number 10. His role, accompanied by the significance of his shirt number is not lost on the young Brazilian.
I know the importance of the number 10. In Brazil the one who wears 10 constructs the attacks. That is what I will try to do here. The number I have at Liverpool does not give me any added pressure. The pressure I have is to play well and do my best for the team. I know that I am representing a huge club and I want to enjoy my football.
Hailed as “the future of Inter Milan” by the Nerazzurri’s president Massimo Moratti, Coutinho cites countrymen, Kaka and Ronaldinho, as his role models. If he goes on to achieve half of what those former Ballon d’Or winners did, Liverpool will have struck gold. The initial signs have been promising, having either scored or created a goal in his first five starts for the club, as well as producing various other chances in a new, attacking line-up which includes Daniel Sturridge and South American, Luis Suarez.
His almost flawless technique is what fans have come to expect from a player hailing from his part of the world; something which new team-mate Lucas Leiva joked about, having suffered the indignation of many questioning his true nationality when he first arrived on Merseyside. Labelling Coutinho “a proper Brazilian,” his compatriot added, “like the fans were probably expecting when I signed.”
The stereotypical view of a Brazilian Number 10 was further enhanced when Coutinho spoke of how he honed his skills as a youngster.
I played futsal from the age of six. Then when I was seven I went to Vasco Da Gama, I was playing futsal until I was 11 before I moved to the pitch.
This is where I learned my skills. When you play futsal it is more technical and much quicker. The place where you play is much smaller and the pace higher so you need to be a highly technical player to play futsal properly.
Perhaps this pace, and the fact that he’d experienced top-level football in three major countries prior to his move to the Premier League, has helped his adaptability and instant impact; somewhat putting paid to the much-peddled misconception that foreign flair players need time to adjust – if they do at all.
Having team-mates and a coach who speaks a common language has also helped Liverpool’s new star settle quickly, as well as the attacking philosophy the club now employs. Speaking of the club’s other South American star, Luis Suarez, Coutinho said:
We always communicate on the pitch in Spanish. He speaks Spanish and I understand it. I spent six months in Spain so can get by quite well with it.
It is not only him. The manager communicates with me in Spanish and always asks me to come into the middle and try to open the play to the wide areas or go straight on. He’s playing me in the position I like best, on the left, but able to come inside.
Not that Coutinho is getting ahead of himself; there seems to be a sensible head on those young shoulders, and he knows he has a lot to prove at a consistently high level, but is not afraid of the challenges that lie ahead.
In Brazil the Premier League is followed more than any other [foreign league] and everyone says it is the toughest league in the world. The difference I’ve noticed is you have to be a quick thinker and move around much sooner because the pace is so much higher.
I need to improve my muscles because they are still quite small at the moment. Of course it can be a challenge but before I came here Lucas told me about the style of play. To me it is a challenge and I wanted to deal with it as quickly as possible.
How does he plan to overcome the toughness and physicality of the league?
I’m quite calm about that. If I get kicked, I will get up and carry on playing.” Retaliate? “No, I have to score the goal first.
Back in 1984 a goal scored in Rio de Janeiro, at the legendary Maracanã Stadium, went someway to establishing a player who would go on to become Liverpool’s greatest ever number 10. Just 12 years later, the same city gave birth to a player the Reds hope will finally replace him, and do his number justice.