In his first column for our new Talking Reds feature, Tomkins Times writer Simon Steers looks at how the focal point of Liverpool's attack has changed from the No.9 to the No.10...
In the great Liverpool teams of bygone years the one fundamental philosophy has been that the team is the star. Although some of the best players in the world have played for the club over the years, the key characteristic has been that they have all been able to bring out the best in the players around them: Keegan, Dalglish, Beardsley, Barnes and Gerrard to name a few (not a bad five-a-side team!).
Brendan Rodgers is a disciple of the principle that football is a team game and to be successful you need the right dynamic of different attributes in players. One of the most important roles in a Rodgers team is the No.10 role: the 'playmaker'.
The No.10 role in a Rodgers side is a focal point for the attack. Unlike a traditional No.9, whose role it is to hold up the ball and bring others into play, the No.10 is always looking forward. Rodgers prefers a patient build-up rather than a longer ball over the top; so it is critical that his team has a player that can unpick a defence; a player that has the vision and craft to spot intelligent runners and play them into space, either running through on goal or towards goal.
Over the years South America has provided some of the best No.10s to ever play the game. The likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Maradona. It is a role made for a player that has outstanding technique and skill in close quarters. Two attributes South American players seem to have built into their DNA.
In the mid-90s Middlesbrough signed a Brazilian player called Juninho. At 22 he was scouted by some of Europe's top clubs; and it was a huge coup for Middlesbrough to sign him. He went on to be a huge success as a No.10, quite probably one of the best players in Middlesbrough's history. Little did we know the impact he would have on Liverpool more than 15 years later.
Juninho is the cousin of the fifth Brazilian to play for Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho. Although he has arrived in England at a younger age than his cousin, he has already started to show signs that he will make a similar kind of impact on the English game. When Coutinho was growing up, it was his cousin Juninho that sparked his interest in football. And interestingly, you can see similarities between the two.
Coutinho the No.10
Even at the tender age of 21 it is clear that Coutinho can be a player that Rodgers can build his team around. Whilst he has fantastic individual ability, Coutinho is the type of player that will thrive in a team that is the sum of its parts. Coutinho has all of the tools to be a top modern day No.10. His quick feet, vision, and ability to unpick a defence with one killer ball are going to be an exciting part of the team's DNA.
It will be important for Coutinho to find ways to adapt to the English game. He has perhaps been a little bit of a surprise package; but next season he will become a marked man. He only needs to look as far as his cousin to see the challenges he will face, but more importantly, how to overcome them.
One of those challenges will be standing up to the physical nature of English football. Teams will try to bully Coutinho out of a game, so he will need to find a way to play intelligently in those kinds of games. Perhaps taking up space in non-traditional areas and making different runs. One of the characteristics of Coutinho is that he has real game intelligence, and he will recognise that unpredictability will be a huge asset to him.
The team will also need to protect Coutinho. He will need protection from the two deeper midfielders; and by using our full-backs to provide width it will stretch teams and provide more space for Coutinho 'in the pocket'.
The team is the star
Whilst Coutinho may be a focal point of Rodgers' Liverpool in future years, he can only be as good as the players around him. Coutinho will thrive with forward runners that have the intelligence to find space. We have already seen some outstanding link-up play with both Sturridge and Suarez; and next season a fully-fit Borini will benefit from Coutinho pulling the strings.
Although Coutinho looks a natural fit for the No.10 role, he also has the benefit of versatility. He can play on the left side of a front three; drifting in and creating chances. If the club decided to bring in another player in the No.10 mould, Coutinho has the ability to dovetail.
I think the biggest asset the Brazilian has is his ability to bring the best out of the players around him. He is a natural facilitator for making the team the sum of its parts. I think that is also a role that Joe Allen will grow into in the next few seasons, albeit from slightly further back.
Both Coutinho and Allen are the type of players that will be at the heart of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool. Both possess huge talent, but both are also facilitators for others to excel.
There has been a lot of focus on Brendan Rodgers' footballing philosophy since he was appointed manager of Liverpool. At the heart of that philosophy I believe is the blueprint of the great Liverpool teams of the past. It is about passing, possession and penetration. But it is also about style, and about building a team of players whose attributes combine to enable the team to realise its potential.
The biggest difference in philosophies between Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish is probably that Kenny wanted a No.9 as a focal point, where Rodgers' preference is a No.10. There are pros and cons to both philosophies; but there is a fundamental difference in style of play. In 1987-88 Kenny probably built the greatest Liverpool side of all time with Peter Beardsley in a Coutinho-type role. If Rodgers' team can grow to anywhere in sight of that level, then success will not be far away.
I think this is an incredibly exciting time to be a Liverpool fan. The type of players that we are signing will all thrive in a team dynamic. There are many different paths to success, and some are more obvious than others. I think the path we are following is the right one.
We are going to enjoy watching this Liverpool team grow; we don't know where that journey will take us, but I suspect that we will all be dancing to the samba beat along the way.