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More Than That: On the Irresistible Harmonics of Mané, Salah, and Firmino

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Like the Best Boy Band of all time, Liverpool’s attacking trio are better than the sum of their parts.

Watford v Liverpool - Premier League
Hendo: “What d’ya mean I don’t get to sing in the group? I’m the Kevin F*ckin Richardson of this squad, fam!”
Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images

“Yeah, that trio is very well put together. Like a BSB harmony - maybe not the best singular voices, but fit perfectly together.” - Khaine, TLO Scribe & Culture Critic Extraordinaire

“Oh my God, we’re back again” - Backstreet Boys, Poets Laureate for the State of Florida

There’s a moment in the 2015 documentary Show Me What You’re Made Of, chronicling the Backstreet Boys (BSB) as they reconnect to write, record, prep, and tour in honor of their 20th anniversary, where we are confronted with what makes them special. It happens about 20 minutes in when Brian Littrell or Howie Dorough mentions “that BSB harmony.” That harmony which planted itself inescapably and, for some, obnoxiously, into the late 90’s zeitgeist, became not only the trademark for this group, but a badge of honor: though they lacked the singular effervescence of a Justin Timberlake, the blend of their voices turned them into a pop music Voltron of sorts. Separate, they might struggle to edge their way past a crowded field of talented and unique vocalists. Combined, though, they crafted a sound that was larger than life.

While I may personally quibble over Khaine’s note on BSB not having the best singular voices (were I to re-draft my perfect boy band between the members comprising BSB and ‘NSync, my final five would contain no less than three BSB members. Yes, I have put deep thought into this.), it is absolutely undeniable that the blend of all five is when their work hits the stratosphere. It set them apart from the rest of the competition and often made it difficult to discern who, if any member, was dispensable. In fact, prior to re-uniting in 2013, BSB went from being a 5-member to a 4-member outfit with the departure of Kevin Richardson. And while releases and tours took place during that time, it was clear the sound suffered. A missing cog - even if not one of the three “lead” voices in AJ Maclean, Brian Littrell, or Nick Carter - very much ground the machine to a halt.

Liverpool Football Club’s front three works in a similar way. The trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah are absolutely scintillating to watch work together. Scorching pace, silky technique, and genius-level off-the-ball movement, the front three have been a nightmare to every defense that has had the misfortune of lining up against them. And while Mo Salah might get more of the news of late with his superb form, you’d be hard pressed to pick among them the most important.

Is it Salah, whose close-control and pace make him a nightmare on the wing? Torching defenders and playing off-the-shoulder from wide. Scoring important goals by the bucketload and shouldering the load in Mane’s absence, he’s a good bet.

What about Sadio Mane, himself? His absence coincides with a drop in results, underscoring his importance to the squad. Pace, vision, and perhaps the most reliable shooting boots on the squad at present, Mane represents the closest we’ve come to a clinical finisher since Daniel Sturridge’s body betrayed him. Mané is not a poor choice, either.

And what of Bobby Digital? His movement off the ball has removed defenders and allowed for the space into which Mane and Salah can run one-on-one. Not the fleetest of foot but the quickest of mind, his ability to hold, move, and pick a pass—now aimed at two of the fastest forwards in the Premier League—Firmino has turned the False Nine into an art form. Without his positioning and vision, it’s arguable Mane and Salah see fewer chances in total and fewer quality chances.

The conundrum of which player is most important had been relatively clear in season’s past: Luis Suárez, Philippe Coutinho, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard. Sure, there were always those players tugging on the coattails of the clear-cut talisman, and some seasons made such discussions tighter. But never in my short history as a supporter have I seen a unit actually perform as one in that it is difficult on a daily basis to determine from whom the magic moment will come. And on match days like the torching of Hoffenheim in the second leg of the Champions League qualifying tie, where all three quantifiably contributed to the scoresheet either by notching a goal or by assisting, it becomes impossible to discern who is the true focal point of the attack.

This is likely by design; how does one prepare against an attack that features these three? How do you balance your defense towards pressure points if the angles are so unpredictable? How do you defend when you are often being caught on the wrong-foot?

And this is a final advantage to having a harmonically unified front three like LFC: everyone knows when Justin Timberlake is coming, but no one expects to get out sung by the guy-from-the-photoframe-inserts-before-you-replace-them-with-your-actual-photos, Brian Littrell. But then it happens and everyone’s left in shock, mouths agape, and stuck wondering what just happened and is “tragical” even a word? LFC’s attack has lacked the transcendent and singular focal point of a Harry Kane or Alvaro Morata, but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been on fire. And my one desire is to see these three stay healthy and keep doing what they do best. Poetry in motion? Yeah, I want it that way.