Any Liverpool fan you talk to will wax lyrical about the magic of the Coutinho-Sturridge partnership, and how the Brazilian will be setting up chances galore for the England international when he finally returns from injury.
Has this actually been the case regularly in the past though? Everyone remembers fantastic assists from Coutinho to Sturridge against Newcastle, Fulham, Everton and Arsenal, but what’s the chance creation story for their whole time together in the Premier League?
Since Philippe Coutinho’s first league start for Liverpool (which came in a 5-0 win over Swansea City in February 2013) he has been on the pitch thirty-four times with Daniel Sturridge. In the 2,155 league minutes that they have spent on the field together, Coutinho has created sixteen chances for Sturridge at a rate of one every 135 minutes.
The thing that stood out like a sore thumb when examining the figures was the difference between 2012/13 and last season; half of the sixteen chances came in the nine games in their first half season together, with only eight more in twenty-three games in 2013/14.
Why was this? I think it boils down to the presence (or lack thereof) of a certain Uruguayan striker. Without Luis Suárez on the pitch, Coutinho has created nine goalscoring opportunities for Sturridge in 783 minutes, which is eighty-seven minutes per chance. But then when Suárez played, Coutinho only fashioned seven chances for Sturridge in 1,372 minutes, or one every 135 minutes in other words. That’s quite a difference!
It’s clear from the 2013/14 chance creation combination figures (which you can see for the Liverpool squad in full here) that Coutinho was far more interested in creating for Suárez than he was for Sturridge, as he set up the Uruguayan nineteen times in the Premier League last season.
I then also remembered that Liverpool’s most frequent non-Suárez chance creation combo last season was Sterling to Sturridge with fifteen, and also that Raheem teed up the former Chelsea striker twice in each of his three appearances this season.
In their twenty-seven league appearances together, Raheem Sterling has created twenty-one chances for Daniel Sturridge in 1,517 minutes; 72 minutes per chance. That’s a vastly superior rate compared to Coutinho setting up Sturridge (be it with or without Suárez), yet nobody really talks about it as a relationship at all, and certainly not with the awed tones that are reserved for the Phil and Dan show.
It’s probably just coincidence, but I thought it was interesting that since Coutinho last created a chance for Sturridge (which was in Liverpool’s 2-1 home win over Sunderland last season), Sterling has created a whopping eleven opportunities for him in 679 minutes, so one every sixty-two minutes. It certainly appears that Raheem has surpassed Coutinho’s relationship with Sturridge, even if the assists haven’t flowed quite as freely.
So are the assists perhaps acting as a form of confirmation bias? Coutinho has five for Sturridge, most of which have been fabulous passes too, whilst Raheem Sterling only has two for his international colleague. This is presumably why people focus on Coutinho and Sturridge more, and perhaps rightly so, but in creativity terms the picture isn’t as clear in my opinion.
A final point: Coutinho and Sturridge are widely considered to be the only two full blown transfer hits of the Brendan Rodgers era, and Sterling has clearly been the best player to be brought through the ranks and fully into the first team in this period, yet the three players have only been on the pitch together in the Premier League fifteen times to date.
The Reds’ record in those games is impressive too: won eleven, drawn two and lost two (and the defeats were against Chelsea and Manchester City). Liverpool have therefore averaged 2.33 points per game when Sterling, Coutinho and Sturridge play together, and whilst a top four finish looks a remote possibility right now, with Sturridge supposedly coming back from injury, I guess you never know. Get those three on the pitch simultaneously, and the sparks really might fly; my advice would be to keep a closer eye on Sterling than Coutinho though.