Jack Hallows digs into the stats behind Liverpool’s deadly trio and tries to determine whether they truly are the most potent attack in the league.
Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané – three names that likely strike fear into the hearts of Premier League defenders all over the country.
There were worries that with no Philippe Coutinho to feed the trio and pull the strings from the midfield that their output would slow down, or worse still, drop off entirely. Considering they’ve since put four past Manchester City, notched convincing wins away at Huddersfield and Southampton and smashed five past Porto, I’d say they’re doing just fine.
Are they however, the best attacking trio in the Premier League?
Bizarrely, Liverpool pundits are still under the impression that all of Liverpool’s problems would be solved by signing another goalscorer. John Barnes is quoted by the Liverpool ECHO this week as saying, “Salah is not a center-forward, I don’t think he is a player who can score goals consistently over a period of time. We don’t have players like that.”
Have you been watching the Reds this season, John?
In a way, I understand the argument. Liverpool don’t have an out-and-out goalscorer in their ranks in the same vein as Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero or Arsenal new-boy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Firmino is classed as a ‘false’ nine, Salah is first and foremost a right-sided winger and Mané is also a wide forward.
However, that hasn’t stopped the trio scoring a combined 63 goals in all competitions – including 40 of Liverpool’s 61 goals in the Premier League this term.
In fact, with the way the pundits speak about this trio sometimes, you’d think that they’d be miles behind when being stacked up against other sides’ front lines.
Spoiler alert: They aren’t.
For the following table, I used the front three combinations (hence no De Bruyne, Coutinho etc) for each side with the most minutes played in the Premier League this season.
As you can see, the Reds attacking three are far more potent than every top six side apart from Pep Guardiola’s freakish Manchester City. Their 40 goals and 18 assists mean they average a goal contribution once every 93.32 minutes with Mohamed Salah unsurprisingly the most impressive individual of the three this campaign. The Egyptian averages a Premier League goal or assist every 70 minutes.
The most important thing to note however about this table, is that every other side boasts a so-called ‘natural’ goalscorer. Spurs have Kane, Chelsea have Morata, Manchester United have Lukaku, Manchester City have Aguero and Arsenal have Lacazette. Despite this, only Man City’s front three have more total goals than Liverpool.
Doing the dirty work
For most, attacking players are solely in the team to score goals.
For Jürgen Klopp, it’s not this simple.
The German’s system is such that defending starts with Liverpool’s front three and it can be argued that they are the Reds most important players when out of possession as well as when they have the ball.
When the Reds are at their best, Salah, Firmino and Mané can be found hounding the opposition, getting in their faces and nipping in at their ankles in an attempt to win the ball high up the field and spring rapid counter attacks. We perhaps saw best how effective this is against Manchester City in January.
The Reds embarked on a mental second-half spell of ten minutes where they harassed and harried Fernandinho, John Stones and Otamendi, forcing errors and capitalising brutally to go 4-1 up against the shell-shocked league leaders.
This period of football proved that it doesn’t matter how good a player you are, how composed you are on the ball or how confident you are in your ability – Liverpool’s pressing game will always cause problems when executed properly. Klopp himself has explained how effective the counter-press can be as a playmaker and the influence it can have on a game.
Fluidity and interchangeability
Something that Liverpool boast in their front three that a number of other Premier League teams don’t is their fluidity and ability to interchange their positions across the front three.
On paper, Mohamed Salah starts on the right, Roberto Firmino is the solo striker at the point of the attack and Sadio Mané starts on the left. Simple, right?
They might stay there for the first five minutes or so of a game, feeling their way into a match and exploring the best way to beat their man or the best avenues in which to make lung-busting runs.
All of a sudden, Salah is popping up between the center-halves waiting for a cut back from Mané on the right-hand side and Firmino arriving at the back post. It often happens so quickly that you’re left scratching your head thinking: “when did he get there?”
If you’re not sure what I mean – and you should be by now really – go back and watch the highlights of the Porto game. The way Liverpool’s attackers drifted around the pitch, losing their markers and forcing the opposition defence to actively search for who they were meant to be picking up, contributed heavily to all five of the Reds goals.
While every front line in the Premier League boasts some kind of fluidity, no trio is quite as schooled in the art of ghosting around the pitch as Liverpool’s. The way they pull and drag defenders out of position, isolate their markers and cause disruption in the opposition box is perhaps only rivalled by Manchester City and even then, their front line does so simply through reputation.
Game intelligence is paramount to Jürgen Klopp’s style of play and Firmino, Salah and Mané have it in abundance.
Whether the Reds trio is actually the genuine best front three in the Premier League will never be a debate that’s given a unanimous answer – that’s the fun of football. For me though, they’re certainly the most exciting to watch and nobody can argue that their contribution to this Liverpool side’s fortunes isn’t superb.