With 88 goals and 40 assists between them this season, few forward lines in Europe have matched the incredible potency of Liverpool’s front three. It might seem audacious if not intentionally incendiary then, to suggest that Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane need breaking up this summer. But if the Reds want to advance to the next level and really push Manchester City for the 2018/19 Premier League title, that’s the kind of tough decision Jurgen Klopp will have to make.
It’s not so much a question of efficiency; Mane, Firmino and Salah compliment each other incredibly well, while fitting perfectly into an attacking system that has transformed Liverpool into Champions League finalists and arguably the second-best side in England. Rather, it’s a question of the lack of support and depth Liverpool have in those positions, and the need to dramatically bolster the squad for next season.
While there is a significant gap between the starting XI and the second XI at every Premier League club, Liverpool’s feels particularly severe. Following Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge’s loan move to West Brom, Klopp’s best backup options for any of Liverpool’s forward berths are Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings. The former is 20 years of age and continues to await his first Liverpool goal since signing from Chelsea last summer; the latter is still overcoming a long-term injury but even when at his fittest, probably isn’t quite at Liverpool’s level anyway – at least, not at the level of Salah, Firmino and Mane.
There are two ways to approach that shortage, a shortage that has limited Liverpool’s capacity to sustain a title challenge and compete in the domestic cups this season. The obvious one is to sign players specifically for Liverpool’s bench, but that nearly always comes with its own set of problems; the signings never receive enough game-time to really gel themselves into the team, provided they can be convinced to move for a mere bench role in the first place, and accordingly rarely produce to the full levels they’re capable of.
The alternative is to upgrade on a current member of the starting XI, who in turn finds himself bumped down the pecking order. Whereas Salah’s form has made him probably the least droppable player in Europe right now and Firmino’s unorthodox take on the centre-forward role has become such an intrinsic cog in the way Liverpool attack, Mane unfortunately finds himself as the most expendable member of Liverpool’s front three – and in truth, probably the least talented.
That may seem harsh considering Mane’s Liverpool career has been incredibly successful to this point. He was the Players’ and Fans’ Player of the Year at Anfield last season and Liverpool didn’t actually win a game without the Senegalese attacker until April, highlighting how important a figure he’d become during a stunning debut campaign. But Mane’s influence has waned this season, the gap in Liverpool’s win rate when he’s absent reducing to just 4%, and Salah’s stunning form has shown the subtle yet key difference between a top-class attacker and a world-class one.
Mane unfortunately belongs in the former category, because compared to Salah there are notable inconsistencies to his game – particularly in front of goal. While there’s been much talk about the Egyptian missing 21 big chances this season (as defined by the Premier League’s website) after suffering another against Stoke City on Saturday, Mane’s actually missed more big chances than scored goals in the Premier League this term – eleven compared to ten.
Some might even suggest there’s been a Raheem-Sterling-esque rashness to his finishing at times, and the 1-1 draw with Everton, when Mane missed a glorious chance before half time, particularly evokes painful memories. He also missed two huge opportunities against Roma in the Champions League semi-final at Anfield, only for Salah to save his blushes a few moments later.
Of course, Mane brings much more to the team than just goals. Seven assists is a strong contribution, and his sheer energy is an important aspect of this often merciless front line. When he’s not finding the net himself, he’s using his speed to create space for others or his athleticism to win the ball back in dangerous areas by pressing high.
But that’s precisely why this discussion is about making Mane more of a rotation option, rather than axing him completely. After all, he’s clearly perfect for Klopp’s system and is probably Liverpool’s most versatile forward, capable of playing on both wings or as a central attacker, and that – coupled with how well-bedded into the team he is already – only adds to the argument that he’ll probably be more effective from the bench than any forward Liverpool sign this summer with the intention of making him their go-to substitute.
However, there is one obvious problem with this suggestion – who can Liverpool actually sign this summer that would be a clear improvement on Mane, yet still suits the Reds’ attacking structure to a similar degree. Such options aren’t exactly in copious supply, because we’re now talking about the absolute elite end of the transfer market, but if Liverpool intend to compete with City next season – champions currently 21 points ahead of them in the Premier League table – that’s the calibre of player that needs to arrive at Anfield in the coming transfer window.
Perhaps that requires a second attempt to sign Kylian Mbappe, should Financial Fair Play force PSG into a sale, an audacious bid for Juventus star Paulo Dybala, or a move for a more proven Premier League talent like Chelsea’s Willian or Tottenham’s Heung-min Son. It will be a huge move on Liverpool’s part, but the £75million deal for Virgil van Dijk proved Klopp is willing to set unprecedented transfer fees to sign the right players and if a Mane upgrade becomes available to the Reds this summer, the Anfield gaffer must take that chance to continue moving this frighteningly exciting attacking team forward.
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