He’s got other things on his mind right now so he probably won’t even remember saying it, but when Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea in the summer of 2013 he did so with a challenge to Eden Hazard.
The Belgian had just enjoyed an impressive first season in English football, scoring 13 goals as his side won the Europa League under Rafael Benitez, but his new manager wanted more.
“I think the kid has a lot of talent, as everybody knows, but he has to go to the next stage,” he said.
“Football is about numbers. He has to transform his great talent into great numbers: how many goals, how many assists, how many winning goals, how many goals in big matches?”
Hazard has responded with 31 goals since then, as well as 17 assists in the Premier League alone, the PFA Young Player of the Year award and probably the Premier League itself in May. There’s an argument that he’s the best player currently in the division.
The challenge that Mourinho presented the Belgian with is one that is true of many top level footballers. They can often sparkle on the fringes of a match, but then get found wanting when it comes to making a telling contribution; a goal, an assist, a number.
As criticisms go it isn’t the harshest, but it is one which separates the excellent players from the merely very good, and it is one which is currently being embraced by Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho.
The memories of the Brazilian’s brilliant winner against Manchester City on Sunday are still fresh in the mind, but they are also joined there by his sublime goal at Southampton, his last minute winner at Bolton in the FA Cup and a pair of assists for Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge in a match against West Ham.
There’s more, too, if you go a little further back. There’s the acrobatic Boxing Day assist for Sterling at Burnley, and a goal against Arsenal.
All are products of the switch in formation from Brendan Rodgers which has been designed to get the best out of the Brazilian, as well as Sterling and sporadically Adam Lallana. The Northern Irishman deserves immense credit for the manner in which he’s turned around Liverpool’s season, but Coutinho arguably deserves a similar billing.
In fairness to him, scoring big goals has never been too much of a problem for him.
He netted in a Merseyside derby last season, and scored a crucial goal in the comeback at Fulham which really lit the blue touch paper on the title challenge. He also scored home and away against Manchester City, with the Anfield strike looking like the most significant Liverpool goal for over 20 years for a couple of sunny weeks in April.
These were occasional contributions though, with Coutinho himself viewed as a player capable of great moments in matches but not necessarily a great impact upon them.
One of Liverpool fans’ favourite things to do on Twitter is to share Vines and GIFs of some outrageous pieces of skill from the Brazilian – and they can see some nice ones here – but whilst those pieces of quality might ultimately come to nothing, now those six-second clips feature great goals or wonderful assists. He is maturing.
That really shouldn’t be too surprising. The Brazilian is only 22, but his big game experience dates back to his Inter Milan days and those Champions League games when Gareth Bale had Maicon on toast. Coutinho has learned a lot since then.
Rodgers called him “the brain” of his team back in pre-season, but now he seems to have become the heart. He is the player driving them forward, acting as the key man in a young team with seemingly boundless energy.
Manuel Pellegrini obviously didn’t reckon with this given his surprising preference for a 4-4-2 formation for a second time in a week at Anfield, where Coutinho and Lallana revelled in the space in front of the Manchester City back four. The Englishman could have scored at least once before the Brazilian so emphatically did.
More challenges lie ahead for Coutinho and his team as they chase an impressive ending to a season which started so disappointingly, but if he can keep these numbers up then his position amongst the very best attacking midfield players in the game should be assured.
Hazard is already there, and the way things are going he’s going to have some company very soon.
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