Coutinho absence a test of squad depth

Posted by David Usher

Liverpool were left reeling this week with the news that key playmaker Philippe Coutinho would miss the next six weeks due to the shoulder injury that forced him off during Monday night's 2-2 with Swansea. The blow will be cushioned considerably with the impending return of Luis Suarez, but it's still something the Reds could have done without, particularly having already lost Glen Johnson for the next few weeks, too.

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Coutinho hasn't quite been at his dazzling best so far this season, but the negative effect his departure had on Liverpool's performance at Liberty Stadium was clear for all to see. With Coutinho on the field, his teammates always had an option when in possession, as the little Brazilian was floating around the field constantly looking for the ball and linking the play, keeping things ticking over. He may not have been as spectacular as we have come to expect, but he was effective, and his absence was keenly felt as Swansea took control of the game and Liverpool suddenly found it difficult to get out of their own half.

There were other factors in that, too, notably Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses running out of gas and Iago Aspas once again struggling to make any kind of impression on the game. But undoubtedly, Coutinho's departure hurt Liverpool and will continue to do so until he is fit to return.

The question for Brendan Rodgers is how to deal with the loss. As with Johnson, there is no like-for-like replacement, and it may require a slight tactical adjustment to compensate. Liverpool clearly missed Johnson against Swansea; Andre Wisdom simply cannot offer the things that Johnson does, and it was noticeable that most of Swansea's attacks seemed to come down that flank.

Rodgers has a decision to make at right back: does he bring in Kolo Toure from the start or stick with Wisdom? Perhaps he'll go with three at the back? It's not an easy decision, but that's why managers are paid the big bucks. For a side such as Liverpool, losing starters through injury is more of a problem than it is for other clubs competing at the top, simply because the quality of replacement isn't quite there in some areas of the team. I touched on this when talking about Johnson last week, but while Coutinho is undoubtedly a terrific talent, he's easier to replace than Johnson simply because Suarez is ready to step in to fill the void. Well, almost ready, he still has one more game to serve of his suspension of course.

While there's nothing positive to be taken from Coutinho being sidelined, it does remove at least one potential headache for Rodgers. Suarez was always going to come back into the side; he was arguably the best player in the Premier League last season, and players of that quality are simply not going to be left on the bench. With Sturridge having established himself as the country's most in-form goal-scorer since Suarez was suspended, that's two players who simply have to play, regardless of the roles they are asked to fill. The dilemma for the manager concerns that third spot in the attack.

Assuming Rodgers sticks with the so-far-successful utilisation of Jordan Henderson as a right-sided midfielder with instructions to tuck inside and help out Lucas and Steven Gerrard, that leaves one vacancy in the lineup and two players -- Coutinho and Moses -- fighting to fill it. Coutinho's injury combined with the return of Suarez makes the picture a lot clearer -- at least for six weeks anyway -- but Rodgers does still have to decide what to do for this weekend's visit of Southampton to Anfield, after which Suarez will be free to return.

Aspas replaced Coutinho at Swansea, but he has not yet gotten to grips with the frenetic pace of the Premier League and has been a passenger in three of the four games he has appeared in (Stoke on the opening day being the one exception). Aspas linked well with Suarez in the limited minutes they played together in preseason, but hasn't hit it off with Sturridge yet, perhaps due to the Spaniard being more suited to playing as a 9 rather than a 10.

Rodgers has other options. Unlike Aspas, Luis Alberto is a natural number 10 and hit a hat trick for the Reds' under-21 side from that position this week. He may have played himself into contention with that performance, while Raheem Sterling is another pushing for a place after impressing in that under 21 game.

Sterling enjoyed a good preseason but has not had too many opportunities to build on that -- his one start coming in the Capital One cup victory over Notts County. He's not done enough in the cameos he's had to twist the manager's arm into selecting him from the start, and for 45 minutes of the under-21 game at Anfield the other night he had failed to impress again. He came out flying after halftime, however, scoring once and creating all three of Alberto's goals as Liverpool came from 2-0 down to beat Sunderland 5-2 at Anfield.

Of course it was only an under-21 game, but Sterling ran riot in that second half, and even when he was forced into an emergency shift at right back when the Reds had a man sent off, he was still the most influential player on the pitch. Rodgers was in the stands watching, and both Alberto and Sterling will have given him food for thought ahead of the Southampton game.

Coutinho will unquestionably be missed, not necessarily in the starting XI as Suarez can slot straight in there after this weekend, but having one less top-class attacking player available impacts heavily on the manager's options to change a game from the substitutes' bench. Providing Liverpool can avoid any more injuries to starting players, the team still looks quite strong, especially with one of the world's top strikers set to return. But the depth of the squad is certainly going to be tested until the likes of Johnson and Coutinho can return. Fortunately for Rodgers, the fixture list over the coming weeks isn't as exacting as it could have been.


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