Should Firmino and Salah’s form concern Liverpool?
To sum up Liverpool’s recent Premier League form, you needn't look further than their frontline. From 2017-19, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah breached all defences and sent countless defenders to the psychologist’s couch. The trio was involved in 152 goals [113G, 39A] in those two seasons. In the current campaign, Mane continues the assault. Salah and Firmino? Not so much.
Neither the Brazilian nor the Egyptian were directly involved in any league goals from open play during the past five weeks. Salah's winner against Spurs was a penalty. Firmino’s goal against Aston Villa was ruled out by a ridiculous VAR decision. The duo’s last contribution not immediately preceded by a referee's whistle came against Chelsea at September's end.
The question is whether Jurgen Klopp should be concerned or chalk it up to an anomaly? For the moment, it's the latter. Like most supporters, he isn't alarmed. Why should he be when the Reds have only dropped two points from their first 11 matches? It’s not just about the results. Their performances are increasingly professional.
In the past, Klopp instructed the Merseysiders to hunt down opposition players, to press relentlessly. That intensity spawned the term heavy metal football. The basic principle remains unchanged but the intensity and frequency of their assaults is tempered. They now recognise when their zeal leaves them vulnerable.
These days, the 52-year-old demands a more controlled, measured approach. Fitness may play into the decision as much as tactics but there is a price to be paid. The fullbacks remain the chief architects in attack but their sorties aren't so fluid. Firmino and Salah's malaise contributes. Fortunately, Mane is still firing on all cylinders. If it weren’t for the Senegalese, the Reds would’ve dropped more points.
Formerly among the world's most dangerous players with the ball at his feet, Salah appears timid. Often referred to as the first line of defence by his teammates, Firmino excels in the rarely seen 9.5 role. His industry carries on but his tactical awareness has gone missing. Their deficiencies affect Liverpool’s defence. When Salah scuffs a shot or Firmino makes a poor decision, opponents find it easier to bypass the first line of defence. Alisson's injury isn't the only reason clean sheets are suddenly a rarity at Anfield. Klopp’s men have kept only two thus far, half their total at the same stage last season.
The club's top scorers remain Mane, Salah and Firmino. That keeps alarms from sounding. It’s not like Liverpool rely entirely on their front three. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Divock Origi knock in their fair share, as do James Milner, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. But Klopp’s preference for relatively static midfielders hurts.
A more dynamic unit in the centre of the park might create more chances, allowing Salah and Firmino to rediscover their top form but, again there is a price to be paid for any change. With Manchester City on the card this weekend, it's not the time to take risks.
To be fair, the defending champions have their own problems. Like the Reds, the Sky Blues aren't' at their best. They’ve already slipped on two occasions this season and needed a spark of inspiration to prevent a third. That said, Liverpool stand second in big chances created and big chances missed. In each category, City surpasses them.
That's both encouraging and worrisome. It's a trend the Merseysiders would like to extend but they know their rivals' quality. City are due a break or two.
In addition, a head-to-head match represents a potential six-point swing in the table. These are the challenges champions rise to meet. Knowing City will, Liverpool can only hope their struggling duo comes good at exactly the right time.