The Trident of the Mersey: The front line

This is year four of having one of the most devastating front lines in Europe, made up of Sadio Mané, Mohammed Salah, and Roberto Firmino. It’s kind of unusual in the modern era for any one unit to remain that consistent over the course of that many seasons. Typically, you’ll have one or more that tails off in their career and is replaced or a new coach will come in and change the way things operate or someone will decide to move on to another club for one reason or another (something something Neymar for a quarter billion in oil money.) But so far, our trio have produced no reason for the gaffer to dislodge them and have given no indication that they’re interested in moving anywhere, as no one of them is head-and-shoulders above the others or has the ego required to feel a need to be “the star.” They’ve all quite fully absorbed the tenet of “team before everything” emphasized by Klopp in specific and Liverpool Football Club, in general. For most observers and the manager, the real issue has always been fatigue, which will be an even greater concern this season, with so many games packed into such a short amount of time. The other brow-creaser is the seeming irreplaceable-ness of Bob in his role as false 9. (We’ll get to that.)

But the other issue is one of quality. To date, most of the backups that we’ve had simply can’t produce at the same level. That seems like a tautology: if they were better, they probably wouldn’t be backups. But it’s really the difference between what we have in the midfield and what we have in the front unit. In the former, we can rotate starters and know that the midfield is going to function largely the same. In the latter, we simply don’t have replacements for players at the level of Sadio, Mo, and especially Bob. This was, of course, the focus of the most lauded transfer target prior to the shutdown: Timo Werner. As a multi-faceted forward, Werner would’ve been ideal as the guy whom we could slot in anytime as a regular starter. That last point embodied my hesitation about the whole deal (e.g. why are we paying £54 million for a guy who’s a rotation player?), but it was still a solid move for someone who had expressed interest in coming to Liverpool and in playing for Klopp (I realize that’s probably a distinct majority of players these days.) But, yeah, COVID, etc. So, at the moment, it’s about continuing to groom the other guys into more of what we’d expect from the starters… which is kinda what we’ve been doing for three years now. Admittedly, it’s a problem that most other clubs would love to have.

The Jesus nut?

Center forward: To quote a mildly half-assed fantasy film from decades gone: “There can be only one.” And that one is Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira or, as I usually refer to him: Bob. Last year was a lesser one in terms of direct output with only 9 goals in the PL, but with 8 assists. That led to an xG of (wince) -4.4, but also exceeding his xA by almost 2 because, y’know, of things like this:

My favorite part about that whole sequence is watching all three Maggies able to do nothing but crane their necks (magpies… crane… get it?) to follow the ball with no hope of affecting its passage. So, it’s always been obvious that our #9 is not a traditional #9. He’s not a striker, despite being great in the box on set pieces (over half his PL goals last season were headers from balls lofted in from corners or otherwise.) But he is a brilliant false 9 because of the way he stretches opposing defenses and keeps the whole machine moving. He basically covers the entire pitch, from our box to their corners, like so:

Where most #9s emphasize hold-up play, trying to freeze defenders in the box for others to move around them and get them the ball (a la the headers noted above), Bob is constantly digging the ball out and keeping it moving, everywhere on the field. He’s been noted as the one irreplaceable cog in the machine that is our system. In earlier days, he might’ve been called the Jesus nut of our Huey, if absent the more ominous overtones. Like the rest of the front three, Bob is essentially tireless, but Klopp has gotten in the habit of removing him earlier than the wingers in order to save his legs, which is a highly unfortunate necessity, given that he’s the most difficult to replace of the trio. While the backups have a hard time replicating what Mo and Sadio do, we’ve been unable to find anyone who can do what Bob does. Would Werner have been that guy? Maybe, although he never demonstrated the instinct to cover as much ground as Firmino does. What’s even better is that Bob fits neatly into either of our preferred formations; playing the false #9 in the 4-3-3 and filling the traditional #10 role in the 4-2-3-1. He’s also a ferocious presser, especially in the offensive third, and great in possession, with a dribble success rate averaging 63% over the past three seasons. The xG difference between when he’s on the pitch and not on the pitch is almost 1 goal per 90. As I’ve said so many times before, Bob is what makes the machine run. Without him, it simply lacks the fire of the fabled “heavy metal football.”

Which makes the backup question… difficult. One bright spot of the moment is Takumi Minamino. Taki is a versatile player, who has speed and has demonstrated good field awareness in his limited time on the ball (only 156 touches in the league last season.) But he showed up well this pre-season and one hopes that he’s past the learning curve stage of development in Klopp’s system. Club cult hero, Divock Origi, is also a regular replacement and also generally doesn’t produce at the level required. Merseyside Derby heroics aside, Origi is far more of a traditional #9 than anything vaguely resembling Firmino. Which brings us to, of course, Rhian Brewster. The heir apparent has been waiting for his chance for the last three years, minus a serious amount of injury time. During his tour with Swansea last season, he put in 10 goals for them in just 20 matches, which is an excellent return. But, like Shaq, when you look at Punky Goalster, you think “traditional #9”, which is not what we need, unless we’re seriously going to shift to the 4-2-3-1 on the regular.

Further backups: Xherdan Shaqiri, in a pinch, although he also doesn’t drop back the way the role requires. Not saying he can’t learn it, but it doesn’t seem likely.

The nicest man in football

Left wing: Seriously, Sadio Mané may be the nicest man in the game, on and off the pitch. From constructing hospitals and schools in his home town (underlined by his own admission that he doesn’t really need “lots of fancy cars or anything” when others need so much more) to helping an injured opponent off the pitch, there’s so much to enjoy about Sadio’s basic character and attitude. My favorite moment of recent seasons was when he got off the bus for a Senegal national team game, saw that one staff member was tasked with carrying in all the water, and immediately began helping. All of this should make one appreciate the man just for his basic humanity. It also helps that he’s one of the most feared and capable attackers in the world right now.

Per the wonky stats, Sadio exceeded his xG by +4.5 in the PL, which is down from the previous season when he exceeded it by 5.9. Given the still-changing nature of xG and the varied formulae that embody it, you could read that one of two ways: 1. He was “less lucky” this year. 2. He’s a better player than the system thinks he is. It’s true that he scored 2 fewer goals this year in all comps and 4 fewer in the PL, but there’s nothing in evidence to suggest that he’s any less the player he has been for the past 4 years. Indeed, his relationship with Andy Robertson on the left side has only grown and his awareness of the presence of others in the box has visibly improved, with 7 assists in the PL, compared to the previous season’s 1. One only has to look at the highlights of one particular game to see that:

(That game is also a great example of what Origi can occasionally produce.) Like Firmino, Mané is also quite adept in the air (and at finding space at the back post.) Sadio’s progressive passing (into the box) has also been on a steady climb, going from 103 to 111 to 132 over the past three league seasons with an SCA of 3.51. It’s also amusing for Reds fans that the “nicest man in football” is still competitive and not afraid of going in hard to get the job done (46 fouls last season, with 3 cards.) It’s notable that whenever any media source is attempting to start transfer rumors with anyone among Liverpool’s front three, the first name that comes up is almost invariably Mané’s. It’s also amusing that, from a professional perspective, he’s quite possibly the least likely to want to leave on the entire squad.

It’s worth pointing out when it comes to substitutes that all three of our forwards are quite comfortable swapping positions in-game for extended periods of time. Again, this is part of Klopp’s emulation of the Dutch Total Football approach. But more formal examples exist, as well. Frequently, when Divock Origi comes into the game, you’ll see Mané switch to the right side if Firmino is still in, or to the center role, if not. Unfortunately, Origi is neither as fast nor as aggressive as Sadio (or Robbo, for that matter) so we lose a lot when that happens. Takumi Minamino also usually plays on the left when replacing a member of the front three.

Three season wonder

Right wing: There was a strangely muted response from opposing fans when we bought Mohamed Salah from Roma three years ago. I think much of it originated from the fact that few people had really paid attention to him, despite romping through Serie A alongside Edin Džeko, because he had “failed” at Chelsea. After his explosive first season, the most common refrain from those who had laughed at the money we paid for Virgil Van Dijk was that Salah would be a “one season wonder.” That was 45 goals ago, so… yeah. It has to be acknowledged that he exceeded his xG in that first season by +10.3(!), so some regression to the mean had to be expected by anyone reasonable. And, indeed, he fell short of his xG this past season by -0.9. There could have been some finishing questions posed, but I think it’s more a case of random results being random results. And for those who somehow insist that Mo’s problem is that he’s “selfish” (save me, jeebus… football Twitter is stupid), I’d like to point out that he not only had 10 assists last season, but also exceeded his xA by +2.9. Just like Sadio, Mo Salah is one of the best wingers in the world. He’s one of the reasons we’ve collected the trophy haul that we have in the past couple years.

One difference between him and Sadio is that he’s a bit less of a progresser (120 into the box) with a medium pass completion of 80% to Sadio’s 85%. However, his movement off the ball and adeptness at feeding it to others in and around the box (SCA of 3.69) (selfish!) is just as good, if not better. You’ll often hear commentators wax lyrical about the way that Salah is shifting defenses. If they point it out, that means that observers who are generally only watching Liverpool should spot it even more easily. You’ll see most defenses go into conniptions when he takes a step in toward the top of the box and puts that ball on his left foot…

Chelsea didn’t there, much to their chagrin. That’s one of my all-time favorites from Mo, not least because it embodies his skill with that left foot, but also for Arlo White’s searing commentary and Jordan Henderson screaming: “What a goal! What a goal!” in the celebratory pile. There’s also a hilarious brief look of consternation on Salah’s face as he wonders how rough the celebration might get. You hear the Anfield roar. You get a glimpse of Klopp’s reaction. You see the King laughing and applauding in the stands. This is everything that makes Liverpool what it is. And it’s all started by our brilliant right winger.

Backups are a little sparser in this role. Again, when Origi comes on, you often see Mané switching to this side, since he’s almost as adept. We also have the great offensive presence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Hendo on the right. But the person who should be the nailed-on replacement is Xherdan Shaqiri, as right wing has been his main role throughout his career. In ’18-’19, he seemed to be hitting his stride in the winter months, playing key minutes in a win over ManU and a couple other games. (Ahem.) But then he tailed off and was in absentia for most of last season. He’s had persistent injury troubles which explain some of it, but there are lingering stories about his inability to adapt to what Klopp wants to see on the pitch. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has also filled some time in this slot, but rarely has the same impact that he generates coming from midfield.

You’ll perhaps notice that I had only one “Further backups” section in this whole post, which highlights exactly the problem that most have been concerned about. We do have some depth, but it’s thin and, again, not really of the caliber that we’d hope to have in an overall team strategy based largely on aggressive offense (high defensive line, pressing, etc.)

But, anyway, that’s the wrap on the squad for this coming year. The transfer window remains open until October 5th, so there may be introductions at some point, but it looks like we’re largely going into ’20-’21 with the same cast we had in ’18-’19. Since they’re all still pretty much in their primes (including James Milner, Robot Warrior, at 34), there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Now it’s just a matter of maintaining consistency.

Speaking of the Robot Warrior, there was an amusing tweet going around last week that if Milner plays tomorrow against Leeds, he’ll have played in the last 31 Premier League games that Leeds United has had. My response to that club has also not deviated in the last 16 years: Fuck those guys. Back here Sunday.

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