Why Coutinho signing could plug the Gerrard-shaped hole in Liverpool's midfield

By David Lynch

When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool over the summer alongside his Swansea protégé Joe Allen, it is doubtful that the 39-year-old believed he had inherited a problematic midfield. His new club already possessed a top-notch holding man in Lucas Leiva, a world-class attacking midfielder in Steven Gerrard and, having purchased Allen, the presence which could knit these two talents together.

The bonus signing of Nuri Sahin and Jordan Henderson’s decision to stay and fight for his place meant the middle of the park actually appeared to be the single most well-stocked area of the squad. But, a setback in the form of a two-month lay-off for Lucas early in the season soon put paid to that theory.
Gerrard and Allen’s roles changed significantly during this period, as the pair were asked to drop deep whilst Jonjo Shelvey took on attacking duties. Unfortunately for the Welsh half of that holding duo, only Gerrard has seen off the challenge of Lucas’ return – but the most significant factor for Liverpool as a whole is that he has not reverted to an attacking role.

Gerrard and Liverpool’s benchmark-setting season in the Premier League era was arguably in 2008-09, as they finished just four points behind eventual champions Manchester United after a thrilling title chase. The Huyton-born captain excelled playing behind Fernando Torres as the Reds flourished that term; therefore it provides the best statistical evidence of the 32-year-old’s evolving responsibilities.

As is to be expected under a manager who prioritises ball retention, Liverpool’s possession statistics are up even on that unparalleled season, with the Reds completing an average of 534 passes per game as opposed to 513 in 08-09. Predictably, Gerrard is no different in that regard, averaging 74 passes per game in comparison to the 64 he produced four seasons ago.

The most telling figure, however, is that Gerrard has made 36 per cent of his numerous passes this season from the defensive third, whilst just 23% came from that area in 2008-09. The midfielder is undoubtedly moving deeper as age catches up with him and, despite being just one short of the career-best nine assists he provided in 2008-09, his gradual retreat has caused one sizeable issue this season; a huge void behind the strikers.

Both Henderson and Allen have been experimented at the peak of the midfield, but neither is an attacking midfielder in its classic definition, having scored just seven and four career Premier League goals respectively. But if Rodgers wants his midfield to continue functioning – and, in recent weeks, it has been doing so for the first time since his arrival – the goal haul of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez must be supplemented from elsewhere. Thus, the pursuit of Inter midfielder Philippe Coutinho makes perfect sense.




CLUB: Inter

 CLUB: Blackpool
AGE: 20

The Brazilian has played as a No.10 in the past and may well be viewed as the long-term solution in that position but, should he arrive at Anfield this month, it is unlikely he will be given a baptism of fire in a role which is not exactly prevalent in English football. 

Much more likely is that the 20-year-old will be asked to come in from the left, a task he has performed with distinction several times in Italy and during a loan spell at Espanyol last season. Liverpool’s lack of goals from wide may have been masked by their desperate, season-defining pursuit of Sturridge, but with that desire sated, priorities should now shift accordingly

Over the summer, the Merseyside club allowed Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy to depart, despite the trio contributing 20 goals from wide positions last season. So far this campaign, the combined efforts of Raheem Sterling, Stewart Downing, Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi and Suso have yielded just six.

Coutinho, meanwhile, has plundered three goals in just 10 starts despite falling out of favour at Inter, and that is undoubtedly the sort of return from the wings which would instantly improve Liverpool. In fact, somewhat incredibly given the club’s ill-advised summer policy, this threat could even be further boosted by the addition of a decidedly more long-term target in the shape of Tom Ince.

The former Reds trainee has scored 13 goals and provided 10 assists this term, statistics which far surpass those of the £15 million-rated Wilfried Zaha (even if they have come in the second tier of English football). Most encouragingly though, Ince has taken 72 shots in order to net on 13 occasions, a conversion rate of 18% which Liverpool’s most clinical winger in terms of shots-to-goals this season, Downing, comes nowhere near at 5%.

Barring a late twist in January – one which is entirely possible given the frantic nature of the window – Coutinho and Ince are likely to be the Merseysiders’ only remaining additions. But their status as young, talented, hungry players who resolve concerns regarding the current squad is particularly noteworthy for a club who have made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent times.

After years of inexplicably poor decisions in the transfer market, Liverpool might just be about to take control of their own destiny.

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Conte delighted by Buffon's decision to renew Juve deal

Juventus coach Antonio Conte has confirmed that Gianluigi Buffon has agreed a deal to extend his stay at the club.

The Italy goalkeeper’s current contract expires in the summer, but the former Siena boss is delighted that his captain will be staying put.

“I am happy about his renewal and that the best goalkeeper in the world can continue playing with us for a long time,” Conte told reporters after the 1-1 draw with Lazio on Tuesday.

Reflecting on the Coppa Italia semi-final clash, Conte claimed that his side deserved more than share of the spoils, and vowed to go for broke in the return leg.

“The smile remains for seeing this performance in an emergency situation,” he told reporters after the match, alluding to the lack of personnel available to him on the night.

“From the negative aspects, we managed to find the strength to give consistency to our performance. Despite the difficult moment in terms of injuries, the team deserved much more tonight.

“In the second leg, we will play our game, hopefully with a little more luck. Between our Serie A meeting and this one, Lazio had more good fortune that we did, even if they are a great side who deserve everything.”

Claudio Marchisio was delpoyed in a more advanced role than usual, and Conte was happy with the impact the Italy international made under the circumstances.

“Marchisio was the player who gave me the most guarantees, in that more advanced role and he did well, I also have to thank the rest of the team.

“Paul Pogba also did well, carrying on from his performance against Udinese.”

Celta Vigo complete loan signing of Pranjic

Danijel Pranjic has joined Celta Vigo on loan from Sporting Lisbon until the end of the season.

The Croatia international, who joined the Portuguese outfit on a free transfer from Bayern Munich last summer, has only made 15 appearances in all competitions so far this season and has been linked with a move away from Lisbon for some time.

The 31-year-old joins the Liga outfit on a temporary deal for six months, with Celta retaining the option to make the move permanent in the summer.

“When I got the offer from Celta, I didn’t hesitate for a moment,” Pranjic told a press conference on Tuesday.

“I believe I can bring a lot of experience to the team. Celta play very good football and I don’t believe they should be so low down in the table.”

The club’s porting director, Miguel Torrecilla, added: “He’s a purely offensive player. He can adapt to all kinds of midfield positions, be it on the wing, or in the centre next to a defensive pivot.”

Ricardo Centurion set for summer Anzhi switch

Ricardo Centurión, Racing

Ricardo Centurión / FotoBaires

Racing Club midfielder Ricardo Centurion is set to join Anzhi Makhachkala this summer, the Argentine outfit has revealed.

The 20-year-old starlet has courted interest from some of Europe’s leading clubs in recent months, including Italian giants AC Milan, but Racing president Gaston Cogorno has confirmed the Argentina U20 international is now set to make a move to Russia.

“In the coming days, we are traveling to Russia to finalize the deal,” Cogorno told Radio AM 750.

“Anzhi are very strong in Russia, and they are playing in the Europa League. Their Sporting Director explained that the club plans to continue growing.”

Cogorno also praised the conduct of the youngster, tipping him to enjoy a bright future.

“Since he’s been with the team he has behaved really well… He’s an excellent professional and we believe he has great potential.

As part of the deal, Centurion will remain in Argentina until the Summer.

He will move for a fee believed to be in the region of €7.5 million, making him Racing’s record transfer, eclipsing Maxi Moralez’ €7m move to FC Moscow in 2007.

Roma playmaker Pjanic claims Barcelona interest

Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic has claimed that Barcelona are monitoring his situation, and added that he is flattered to be the subject of interest from the Catalans.

The 22-year-old Bosnia and Herzegovina international says the Blaugrana have been tracking him in recent weeks, but stressed that any move is in the hands of his current club.

“It’s true, Barcelona are tracking me and enquired about my situation with my club,” he told EFE.

“They were watching me during the game with Fiorentina. It is Roma who have to decide, as the clubs deal with these matters.

“Barcelona are a team everyone would like to play for and it is an honour that they are interested in me.”

Pjanic’s contract with the Giallorossi runs until June 2015.