Joseph Kavaloski points out that Liverpool might already have Sadio Mane’s replacement at the club, waiting for his opportunity.
With the Africa Cup of Nations tournament quickly approaching, Liverpool will soon be tasked with having to replace Sadio Mane. The Senegal international has been a hit in his first season at Anfield, leaving the Reds with a massive hole to fill on the right side of the attacking three in Klopp’s 4-3-3 formation.
Replacing Mane will be difficult, but the Reds do have options. Philippe Coutinho is expected to be back from injury right around the time Mane departs. This opens up the possibility of Roberto Firmino shifting to the right with Coutinho on the left and Divock Origi central.
This lineup will probably end up being Klopp’s first choice attacking line with Mane in Africa, but this part of Liverpool’s fixture list also happens to be the most congested of the season. The Reds will be battling in three different competitions all over the course of one month. Plus, Liverpool will be tasked with facing Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham in three huge league matches.
A heavy fixture load combined with Coutinho returning from a serious injury will necessitate heavy squad rotation during this period. Klopp certainly would like to have his strongest eleven available for the three pivotal league matches mentioned above, so some lesser used squad players could be receiving significant playing time in the other matches.
One player who could fit the billing is Sheyi Ojo. The 19-year-old has almost been a forgotten man this season after suffering a fracture in his back towards the end of preseason. Now that he is back training and competing with the U23 squad, Klopp could turn to his young winger in Mane’s stead.
Last season, Ojo was used extensively in the Premier League over the second half of the campaign while the first choice squad was primarily focused on the Europa League. The young Englishman earned five starts in the league to go along with three substitute appearances. In his somewhat limited playing time, Ojo recorded three assists as well as a debut goal in the FA Cup.
Although Ojo is still raw and inexperienced, the youngster brings many of the same qualities as his Senegalese teammate. Ojo can help recreate Mane’s pace down the channels while also adding the ability to cut in from the right flank with his favoured left foot (if Klopp deploys him on the right).
Despite his youth, Ojo is also a very underrated passer. Last year, the former MK Dons prospect averaged an impressive 1.5 key passes per match to go along with an 87.1% passing accuracy. In addition, Ojo created 12 scoring chances in only 8 matches (1.5 per match).
For comparison, Mane has completed only 78.5% of his passes while averaging 1.7 key passes per match. Mane has also created 29 chances in 17 matches, at an average of 1.71 per match. Some of Ojo’s statistics are skewed due to a smaller sample size, but it is clear that the England U19 international has a strong track record of producing at a similar, albeit less impressive, rate when compared to Mane.
Ojo has largely flown under the radar since injuring his back at the end of the preseason, but now could be his chance to show what he can bring to the first team. The youngster was very effective in his handful of appearances last season, but the upcoming run of matches could be one of his only opportunities to crack the matchday squad over the second half of the season.
Ojo may not receive more than a handful of appearances in the coming weeks, but this could be another chance for him to prove himself as a potential long term option. Liverpool have fixtures against Plymouth Argyle, Swansea City, and Hull City, giving Klopp three decent opportunities to rotate his squad. These matches are where Ojo could be given an opportunity.
The 19 year old brings many of the same qualities that Mane provides, and his ability to stretch the defence with his searing pace is something that Coutinho and Firmino simply do not have. Plus, the virtual necessity of squad rotation during this period could force Klopp to bring Ojo into the starting eleven. Ojo may not carry the reputation of Sadio Mane, but he could be a part of the solution to replace him over the coming weeks.