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“The front three picks itself”: Is Klopp’s reliance on Salah, Firmino and Mane sustainable?

October 23, 2019

“AND the front three picks itself…”

Watch, listen or read any Liverpool content previewing a Reds match and that phrase will so often crop up. Because when your front three is Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah – a £300million strikeforce the envy of clubs all around the world – it’s true.

The trio have bagged 213 goals for Liverpool between them. And when you’re that good, and that vital to success, it’s hard to look elsewhere when writing out a team-sheet.

The goal ratios achieved by the threatening threesome in Liverpool colours further emphasises the point. Salah, with 77 goals in 116 appearances so far, is leading the way with an average of a goal every match and a half. Mane is next up, with 67 in 135, averaging marginally over one in two. 

And last up is Firmino. The Brazilian’s 69 goals in 205 Liverpool appearances makes it an average of just under a goal every three games. Not bad for a lad that some trolls like to highlight as a player that can’t score.

None of those individual stats look shabby in isolation, and in an alternative reality where Liverpool were ready to sell their star talent, there would be no shortage of takers for any of the three. Their names continue to periodically be linked with the world’s elite clubs. The problem for the world’s elite clubs is that Liverpool are now among them once more. And every one of the trio has been secured to long-term contracts.

For Liverpool, and specifically for Jurgen Klopp, the more pressing problem is keeping the trio fit and firing – and what to do when one or more are struggling with fitness, form or fatigue. Because there is little doubt about it: The Reds are a more threatening proposition when all three are on the pitch. 

Sunday’s stodgy showing at Old Trafford minus Mo Salah laid this issue bare. Divock Origi, Firmino and Salah all struggled to influence the game in Manchester as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side bedded in to battle and bore. And while the Brazilian deserves a hat-tip for his dummy in the build up to Adam Lallana’s late point-saving strike, it was the forgotten England man and his fellow substitute midfielders Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that rightly received much of the praise post-game.

So it leaves the question hanging, what happens when, to misquote The Spice Girls, three becomes two?

It’s probably first worth pointing out that Klopp hasn’t had to solve the conundrum of Liverpool minus Mo Salah too often in recent times. Last season, the Egyptian forward made more appearances for Liverpool than any of his team-mates, clocking up 52 games across the course of the 2018-19 campaign. The season before it was a similar story – again he made 52 appearances.

Indeed, the robustness of all three players has been a central pillar to Liverpool’s success. Last season, Mane played in 50 games and Firmino played in 48. The season before, Firmino pipped Mane, playing in 54 games to the Senegal star’s 48. This time around the stats read Firmino 13 appearances, Salah 12, Mane 12.

Many questioned in the summer why Liverpool didn’t capitalise on the opportunity offered by winning the Champions League to buy big in the transfer market. Many offering those very same questions wanted to see recruitment in attacking areas, particularly given Daniel Sturridge’s departure. Sturridge, for all his reputation around injuries, made 27 appearances last season – more than Madrid hero Origi.

Origi, meanwhile, seemed to stall over a new contract at Anfield for a while. After 21 appearances last season, more often than not watching “the front three pick itself”, who can really blame him if he wanted to consider other career opportunities?

Equally, looking beyond the unknown (who was available, at what price, how good they are compared to what is already in the squad and so on), perhaps one of the reasons for the low-key recruitment, particularly in attacking areas, was simply the likely opportunities to play given the stats above. 

If you’re one of the best forwards in Europe, do you want to sit on Liverpool’s bench? And how much confidence do you have in displacing Mane, Firmino or Salah on a regular basis?

Looking at the season so far, Liverpool have clocked up 13 games. The starting line-up has not featured all three of Mane, Firmino and Salah in only five of those matches. Those games were the opening day vs Norwich at Anfield, the Super Cup Final vs Chelsea, the home Premier League match with Newcastle, MK Dons away in the League Cup (when they were all rested) and Manchester United, which was forced by Salah’s injury picked up in the Leicester game.

Digging deeper, potential issues for Klopp’s to-do lists become clearer. On the opening day of the season, how you do you tell a man like Mane he isn’t in the side? He’s already spoken of his burning desire to play, of how tiredness is only a state of mind, and his passion – evidenced so publicly at Burnley – suggests he wouldn’t take too kindly to sitting things out when fit to play.

Origi scored against Norwich but he was still hooked for Mane in the 74th minute. In the Super Cup Final, Firmino was the one to miss out. By half-time, Klopp had decided Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn’t working out and the Brazilian was on. The man the manager has called ‘the engine’ was soon making The Reds purr.

Against Newcastle, Klopp again fancied giving Firmino a bit of time off. Origi started the game but by 37 minutes the plan was scrapped as the Belgian left the field with an ankle injury. Firmino was on again.

MK Dons was as expected. The League Cup is the lowest of Liverpool’s priorities and the selection said so. It was, nevertheless, a chance to shine for many. It was an easy sell to the players left out and the players brought in.

Of the 13 games when the first-choice front three has started this season, at least one of the trio has scored in nine of the matches. No tinkering required. But it does bring the question back to what Klopp and his team do when rest or refreshing is required. And given the run of fixtures ahead, that time is likely soon.

There shouldn’t be too much panic on this score though. First, the resilience and robustness of the front three suggests more often than not they will play and perform. When they don’t, it will take time for any new plans to bed in and patience will be required. It can’t be judged on odd matches and moments here and there.

It’s interesting that Klopp has started to fiddle with formations to give opponents something to think about. He did it at Sheffield United and it led to a victory. He did it at Manchester United and it led to a draw. Utilising attacking players from deeper positions may be the switch that can patch up any front three fatigue.

Further, while Mane, Salah, and Firmino clearly dovetail superbly, there is precedent for success without all three in the side. Mane was deemed to have struggled on the right at Old Trafford, switching to accommodate Origi, but in his first season for Liverpool sans Salah he scored 13 goals for Liverpool mainly from that very position. 

Once Salah was on board, his returns were boosted to 20 the following campaign and 26 last season. He’s scored eight already this season. But he can clearly job effectively across the front three positions given time. 

Liverpool’s greatest Champions League match at Anfield, the incomprehensible 4-0 victory over Barcelona, was achieved without Salah AND without Firmino. And while everyone still talks of Origi’s two goals, and Gini Wijanldum’s two goals, and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quickly taken corner, Mane was brilliant that night – and all without his two mates to help out.

Footballers regularly talk about partnerships, understandings, even sixth-sense type interactions on the pitch. It makes all the sense in the world. It becomes the unthinking, the super-fast, the magic that can only happen with hours of work to mould the brain.

Salah, Mane and Firmino have that now. And at 27, 27 and 28 years old respectively, they are in the prime of their careers. It’s why they have scored so many, assisted so many for each other and tortured so many defences over and over again. They all expect to play every week. And it's hard for the manager to say no.

Liverpool may have to shape-shift through the season; they have done it before and can do it again. The showcase at the weekend from Lallana, Keita, and Oxlade-Chamberlain will have pleased the gaffer. The eventual return from injury of Xherdan Shaqiri – another Barcelona night hero – will also help.

But Klopp’s Plan A, when they’re fit and available, will always be: “the front three picks itself”.