Should Liverpool Have A Go-To Man For Goals?
Sadio Mane’s return from international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations came at a time when the Liverpool fans were getting somewhat desperate: for a result, for a goal, for a win. They needed a hero and, in his absence, Mane’s stock grew considerably…and that rise hasn’t slowed any with his two-goal haul to defeat Tottenham Hotspur, helping the Reds back on track in the Premier League.
The brace puts Mane clear as Liverpool’s top scorer for the 2016/17 campaign, but his tally of 11 in all competitions is hardly Luis Suarez-esque. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp’s entire approach to building the team this season has been based around getting multiple players into the final third and penalty box, creating chances and being in place to shoot, rather than focusing on a single, reliable goalscorer.
Early in the campaign when the football was fluid and confidence was high, it paid dividends. But more recently, when results have been disappointing and teams sat off Liverpool, the lack of a natural goalscorer being in the side perhaps had a negative impact. Mane was absent, Philippe Coutinho was injured, Roberto Firmino was out of form and Adam Lallana’s goals dried up. Most notably, neither striker was in the side regularly: Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, fighting for a single spot which isn’t always available.
Liverpool’s struggles to break down defensive-minded sides this season—not even poor outfits, just teams who sit back and make the Reds work hard for chances—are well-documented. The debate has been that a true striker, a natural predator whose sole job is to find space to put the ball in the net, could have altered the poor results…but Klopp has, by and large, favoured this approach only as a secondary measure: when rotations demand it, or when the match isn’t going his team’s way.
Klopp isn’t alone in this approach, even at Anfield.
Rafa Benitez had Fernando Torres toward the end of his tenure, but he consistently spoke beforehand about a preference to have five or six players capable of hitting double figures each season rather than relying on a single striker. Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Luis Garcia, Milan Baros…the type who (until the skipper’s explosion as a goalscoring attacker from deep) would all guarantee sporadic strikes throughout a campaign.
Now, Klopp is relying on Firmino, Lallana, Coutinho, and Mane in his regular lineup. Of the entire squad, only Mane is in double figures, with just three months left of the season. Firmino is only one away, Origi two…but the Belgian has netted just once in the past two months. It’s probable that four might end with double figures for the season—either Coutinho or Lallana should get there—but with the team still extremely porous at the other end, particularly against set pieces and counter-attacks, the need to have a clinical individual, a bigger probability of goals in any given game, still seems the most obvious upgrade for the team to possess. At least, to continue playing in the same manner they have been.
Looking ahead to next season, there are options as to how to incorporate an additional goalscorer; Coutinho could revert to one of the No. 8s, leaving a space in the front line for a wide goalscoring forward, or else Firmino could play from the sides with a traditional striker through the middle.
As late-20s midfielders, it’s unlikely that Lallana and Wijnaldum will suddenly and drastically up the number of goals they contribute from deep, even if their all-round game is incredibly important to the volume of chances the Reds create.
If European football is on the table next season, Liverpool will have to alter the team more often than they have done this season, and quite possibly alter the way of playing in terms of formation or personnel style within the 4-3-3. For the rest of this season, a run against big teams followed by the home stretch against the league’s lesser lights, there are big lessons to be learned.
Is the free-flowing, fluid and interchanging attack the way forward, and can they score enough against all types of teams? Or will Klopp, with greater frequency, have to turn to one of Sturridge or Origi? Where the goals, and thus the points, come from could tell much about the summer plans, and about the longevity that the current iteration of the team has.