Martin King examines what needs to happen for Liverpool upon Sadio Mané’s return to the side after his time with Senegal for the Africa Cup of Nations.
Before Sadio Mané left Anfield to represent Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Gabon, there had always been a fair amount of concern, from both fans and pundits, over how Liverpool would cope without him.
Some expressed it greatly, whilst others were quietly confident the Reds would safely negotiate their way through a month at worst, without their star striker.
Neither the former nor the latter could be blamed. Mané had been enjoying possibly his best period in the Premier League, overcoming the now-rash criticism over his £30 million purchasing fee from Southampton (which will surely move up to £36 million, making him the Reds’ most expensive player) to prove his worth with a number of impressive performances that produced nine league goals and four assists for Liverpool and given that his new side had also emerged as title contenders, blowing opponents away with a fast-paced brand of football that proved capable of getting the best out of almost everyone, it was sensible to worry about Mané leaving, but so was being confident that Jürgen Klopp’s side would do well enough.
Four weeks on from his departure, and following his nation’s exit from the AFCON in the quarter-final stage, Mané has returned to hisclub sidee and what immediately confronts him is a disaster.
Ever since his last match for his side, a 2-2 league draw away to Sunderland, Liverpool have won only one of their last seven games in all competitions. This period has seen them exit both the EFL and FA Cup competitions, after falling behind in the Premier League title race – ten points behind, to be exact – and risking the loss of a much-desired place in the top-four.
Central to these problems has been several reasons, namely the decline in form of key attacking players, the familiar inability to score against sides that set-up ultra-defensively, the absence of one important player due to a rather useless row between Liverpool, the Cameroon FA and FIFA and ultimately the struggles experienced by the Reds’ backline as a result of Jöel Matip’s absence. In short, it’s been a devastating crisis.
It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the Merseyside club specially arranged for a private jet to fly their striker back from Gabon, in order to have him ready for their next league match against Chelsea tomorrow night.
Such news would’ve been very well received, because after-all Mané has turned out to be Liverpool’s main man, however, despite the boost his return provides, there still rests a great burden of demand upon the shoulders of his teammates to rise from their recent slump.
Shambolic defence does it again
There is no other place to start, no other group a Redman would unleash their frustration towards first than Liverpool’s defence.
Over the past seven games in all competitions, Klopp’s backline has conceded eight goals, that is an average of at least a goal for each game. While conceding goals is obviously nothing new to the game of football, it has always been the manner in which they are conceded that deem them understandable or completely unacceptable.
In most, if not all cases, without Mané – in fact, even with the Senegalese striker present – the way Liverpool have conceded goals has been completely unacceptable. “School-boy defending” many have labelled it, the Merseysiders have at times been shocking in failing to pin-down an opponent in a set-piece situation, making the poorest of clearances, struggling with their aerially-gifted counter-parts, being vulnerable to a counter-attack and displaying soft quality in goal.
Which leads to the never-ending case of the Reds’ goalkeepers. In truth, Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet are both decent goalkeepers, who have had their decent moments but whose respective Liverpool careers have been plagued with goalkeeping mishaps that have let in a lot of goals, mostly in key match situations.
However, in spite of the criticism they receive (almost for breakfast, lunch and dinner) the very first blame has to return to the back-four placed in front of each on different occasions.
Believe it or not, a strong back-four is capable of making any average ‘keeper look world-class on any day of the week. Think of the countless average and sometimes below average goalkeepers that have performed in major upsets at Anfield for lower-league sides. Each of them has left the turf looking glorified and relieved they’ve overcome the nightmare of Liverpool’s attackers and in moments like these, it is easy to view them as great goalkeepers but that is not the case at all, reason being, each of their back-four saved their bottoms.
That said, improved performances by both Karius and Mignolet rely on Liverpool’s back-four cutting the poor moments out of their game. That is, picking and staying with a man in a set-piece situation, reading the game better, making calm clearances and positioning themselves rightly for each attack that comes their way.
Midfield influence ceases
In the seven-game period without Mané, another group that has caught the eye for all the wrong reasons have been Liverpool’s midfielders.
To be quite blunt, the phrase “on his day” is mostly used in the beginning of a sentence wherein the person speaking usually describes the quality of a player as being occasional. For example, ‘on his day’ Reds captain Jordan Henderson can be a great midfield influence; ‘on his day’ Emre Can can be a monumental presence at the centre of the park; ‘on his day’ Georginio Wijnaldum can produce an excellent blend of attacking brilliance and defensive awareness.
That, is the beginning of Liverpool’s problems in midfield, Klopp simply has too many “on his day” midfielders.
What makes the situation even worse is the fact that each of these midfielders’ ‘days’ seem to be an eternity away in the first half of the season. Each of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Can each received their fair share of praise for settling into their roles and performing well when called into action, however, recent times have seen their good influence cease, with Henderson easily giving possession away, Wijnaldum again looking more like the nowhere-guy and Can struggling to deal with the pace of opposition attackers as well as take decisive action in tackling or creating a chance.
The trio has simply lacked consistency and any player or manager will tell you: world-class or not, consistent performances are sometimes all a player needs to stay at a top club like Liverpool.
That said, with their returning teammate Mané boosting them, the Reds’ first choice midfielders need to up their respective performances and do so on a consistent basis.
There would be no game to start a good run of form than Tuesday’s against Chelsea.
Strikers in crisis-mode?
Courtesy of statistics by the Mirror, without Mané in the Liverpool side, their strikers have struggled badly.
Daniel Sturridge has managed only two goals in his last ten games for the Reds, Divock Origi has just one in his last ten while Roberto Firmino has converted just 16% of his goal-scoring chances.
That is just a statistical reflection of just how poor a period it’s been for the Reds’ forward men, especially considering how the presence of Mané in Klopp’s frontline has proven vital in making and scoring goals.
But more than just end-product, the overall performances of the Reds’ frontmen haven’t been all that convincing, with Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana often filling in for Mané to lighten the attacking burden. All of them have struggled to come up with the creativity required to break defences down, as opponents the likes of Swansea, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers have adopted a similar approach in forcing the Liverpool attackers wide, with the good knowledge that neither one of their frontmen – with the exception of Firmino and at times Origi – are gifted aerially.
All of this has painted the picture of a striker crisis, with Sturridge apparently taking most of the criticism, Reds legend Jamie Carragher the most recent to rip him a new one.
That only makes the return of Mané that little more vital to the side but again, Sturridge and co. will need to react to the former Southampton man’s return positively, through some much-improved displays in front of goal.
The return of Mané now means that Liverpool manager Klopp has a complete squad at his disposal for the first time in four weeks.
The German has repeatedly taken responsibility for his side’s poor form over the past seven games but that has not taken any pressure off his side, with fans and pundits aiming a large amount of criticism towards the Reds.
Great professionals are seen and made in moments such as these, as responding to criticism positively is now the main task at hand.
That said, and with striker Mané on board, Liverpool’s 2016/17 journey may have taken a number of twists, turns and speed-bumps but the finish line still holds one more important reward for them, one which achieving it relies on improving current performances massively, beginning with yet another big Anfield night against the Premier League leaders.