Monday 18 December 2017

James Lawton EXCLUSIVE: Brendan Rodgers ready to build Liverpool's future around Phillippe Coutinho

Brazilian's new deal a sign club is going in right direction

Brendan Rodgers is finally putting his stamp on the Liverpool team
Brendan Rodgers is finally putting his stamp on the Liverpool team
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring the winner against Bolton in their FA Cup fourth round replay
James Lawton

James Lawton

Maybe it is a little soon to award Brendan Rodgers the Premier League Houdini award for superior escapology.

But then it is also true that, if his former status as English football's fastest-rising manager will take rather more restoration than an 11th hour FA Cup triumph over 10-man Bolton Wanderers, he is certainly entitled to a jauntier stride into Goodison Park for tomorrow's Merseyside derby.

His Liverpool did, after all, do something this week that in the long run may just prove more enduring than the passing sensation of Luis Suarez.

At the very least, they suggested that they may indeed have the collective character to perform one of football's trickier tasks. This is the huge matter of growing strong at what appeared so recently to be some seriously broken places.

Buoyed by the extraordinary Suarez, and a fully fit Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers rode his good fortune to the margins of a title success. Now, in much less promising circumstances, and immensely more pressure, he is required to re-make his team.

This time around the emphasis is more clearly on that capacity to envision and mould his team.

Rodgers inherited the brimming but always problematic chalice of Suarez, the last days of Steven Gerrard, and the largely predictable Jordan Henderson. Now there are a few green shoots that he can claim to have seeded.

Not least, as he was quick to point out after the late survival show at Bolton, is the emerging gravitas of 22-year-old Philippe Coutinho.

The Brazilian match-winner was not without pedigree when Rodgers signed him from Inter Milan.

There, Rafa Benitez said in one of his less self-regarding moments that the boy might be the "future of the club" and, when Coutinho was loaned to Espanyol, coach Mauricio Pochettino was reminded a little of the genius from down the road, Barca's Lionel Messi.

When Pochettino, moved to Southampton he tried to take Coutinho.

Now Rodgers has some reason to believe he may be involved in a thrilling work in progress.

He said: "You would pay money to watch the kid. He is a great role model for lots of technical players in the country. He will become world-class in the next couple of years.

"Luis Suarez grew and grew in this team and I can see Coutinho following the same way, although he might not be so prolific. By signing a new deal with Liverpool he shows he is really committed to the club and its development."

It is the kind of comment a manager tends to make when he feels that he have may have his feet at least halfway under the table.

That seems a reasonable appraisal of Rodgers' situation, which is remarkable enough when you consider how recently he was acquiring the demeanour of a dead manager walking.

The low point came last November when Liverpool were picked apart by Crystal Palace, who in the previous spring had so brusquely de-railed their title challenge.


Now Liverpool go to Palace in the fifth round with a much more hopeful prospectus.

Just four points off a Champions League place, they also hope for a powerful final statement from Gerrard as he pursues the huge lure of an FA Cup final appearance on his 35th birthday.

Rodgers insists that the foundation of a developing team is firmly back in place.

"We didn't play anywhere near our level at Palace earlier in the season but that was our lowest moment. We go back there in a different frame of mind - and with big confidence," said the manager.

"We have got a great habit at the moment, which is winning games. You cannot question their character. They have shown a real strong mentality in my time here. We needed to arrest the momentum that was going the other way after the Palace game. We did that by taking seven points out of nine.

"It is so pleasing to maintain that trend because you can see the confidence growing. The players have been magnificent. I have to give them huge credit. The quality of the goals was outstanding."

So far so good you might say - while adding, crucially, as far as it goes.

That certainly is the view of Liverpool icon, Ian St John, a Rodgers enthusiast when he first saw his old team playing the kind of football that eventually became so remote in the regimes of Gerard Houllier, Benitez and Roy Hodgson.

"One of the difficulties in judging Rodgers, especially in the area of signings, is that we keep hearing this talk of committee decisions at Anfield," said St John.

"Football shouldn't work that way, the manager should be able to go with the players he believes in.

"I liked the way Rodgers brought good organisation to the team and had them running and passing. More recently I worried whether he could get the team back after Suarez left and Sturridge was injured.

"Now I have to say he is running at six out of 10 in my book. He may have weathered the crisis and got things rolling again. However, there is no doubt the team still needs strengthening in all areas."

Coutinho apart, St John worries that Liverpool's midfield is in serious need of re-charging, especially as Gerrard heads towards his Last Hurrah.

"I think Gerrard is very disappointed about the way the way the club refused him a new contract and I think you can see that in his face.

"Jordan Henderson and Lucas are solid enough players but they do not compare favourably with the best in the Premier League and it is ludicrous for people to talk about Henderson being the new Gerrard.

"Maybe the best chance in this area, with Coutinho coming on so well, is Emre Can.

"He is a tough character with a lot of flair and the goal he laid on the other night says that he has a lot to offer in the middle of the park."

Maybe the best of Rodgers' situation at the moment is the sense of some regained authority. The idea that his team had been pulled into a vortex of decline was compelling enough not so long ago to make tomorrow's visit to Goodison seem like still another ordeal of nerve.

Instead, it is the once bright dawn of Roberto Martinez's Everton that seems most discouragingly rooted in the past.

Rodgers has fulfilled his most pressing obligation in the disillusionment that came at the end of last season - and which lingered so disturbingly in the new one.

He has held the line. He has created a team which has re-discovered reasons to believe in itself.

The road ahead may still be hard but suddenly it seems less beset by the possibility of ambush. It is not the least achievement of the manager's most demanding season.

Irish Independent

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