James Milner surged forward from midfield, applying a drilled finish to a sloppy Bernd Leno save, to seal Liverpool a point on Saturday against an Arsenal side that proved a surprisingly tough proposition for Jurgen Klopp’s title-chasing team.
It marked the third time from eleven Premier League games this season that Liverpool’s famed front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have failed to find the net, highlighting recent fears of the usually potent trio operating a few gears lower than they were at last season.
They’ve still scored 13 goals and assisted a further five more in the Premier League, but there’s something noticeably less rampant about them this term. Salah, perhaps due to his injury-hit summer, is still short of the irresistible, record-breaking form of 2017/18, Firmino has struggled to get himself into goalscoring positions – averaging 1.5 less shots per game than last season – and even the club’s top scorer Mane has netted all his goals across just four games.
Luckily Milner managed to pick up the slack on Saturday, extending an incredible record of not losing any of the Premier League games in which he’s scored in. But rather than focusing on the sudden shortcomings of a front line that became the most feared in Europe over the course of last season, Klopp should be more concerned by how rare such instances like Saturday’s have actually been for Liverpool. Substitute Daniel Sturridge included, Milner’s strike against Arsenal was just the Reds’ goal fourth in the Premier League this season not to be converted by one of Klopp’s forwards.
Of course, the idea that Liverpool are reliant on their front three to score goals is nothing new and it’s in part due to Klopp’s own philosophy, which insists on every element to function effectively as a collective rather than prioritising individuality. But even so, the statistics are as worrying as they are staggering; since the start of last season, no Big Six club has relied more on their forwards to score their goals, with 73% of Liverpool’s coming from the forward line, while the Reds rank second-lowest on both fronts for goals scored by defenders and midfielders.
Even when Klopp’s approach to the game, not to mention how simply devastating Liverpool’s front three has been at times, is taken into account though, that doesn’t explain how the problem has only seemingly increased since last season. The percentage of goals scored by defenders has dropped from just over 7% to just below 5%, the percentage by midfielders has dropped from above 17% to below 15%, and so far this season both departments have combined to be involved in just eight goals – the lowest return amongst the Premier League’s Big Six.
Suddenly the picture seems very different, or at least the perspective we should be viewing it from. Instead of criticising a front three that admittedly isn’t hitting the same standards it set itself last season, the difficult questions should be posed to the rest of the team, asking why they’ve struggled to adequately support such a deadly trio.
Philippe Coutinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have no doubt been big losses in that regard, through their shared ability to provide goals and assists from midfield. But Naby Keita required just 23 Bundesliga starts to play a hand in eleven goals for Leipzig last season; this term, he’s yet to score or assist for his new club. Between 2015/16 and 2016/17, Georginio Wijnaldum bagged 17 goals and 14 assists in the top flight; since the start of last season he’s managed just two goals and two assists from 37 starts. Clearly then, the issue isn’t quality or skills set.
The same applies for the backline, where every Liverpool defender should feel they’re capable of contributing much more in the final third. Virgil van Dijk fittingly missed three fantastic chances to score against Arsenal and that’s symptomatic of Klopp’s defensive cohort with the centre-backs managing just four Premier League goals since the start of last season. Especially considering the height of van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, they should be a far greater threat from set pieces, and the current profligacy from that department has nothing to do with how Klopp sets up his side.
Indeed, rather than tactics and philosophies, sometimes players simply become over-reliant on certain team-mates, too comfortable in the assumption that the talismanic entities will carry them through the game. Certainly, Liverpool’s front three can improve to reach the same impressive highs of last season, but they can’t be held responsible for everything. It’s also time for the rest of the team to step up and match the levels Mane, Firmino and Salah have set at Anfield – especially amid this current lull.
Milner did so on Saturday, but such instances have been far too rare for a team that intends to push Manchester City for the Premier League title. City have scored 34 more league goals than Liverpool since the start of last season; tellingly, half of that tally is made up of the precise gap between goals from outside the Reds and the Citizens’ forward ranks.