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Liverpool’s State Of The Team: Attack

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Liverpool have just completed a historic, albeit weird, title-winning season. With the covid-19 pandemic altering schedules and the next season just around the corner, we take stock of each unit, finishing with the attack.

Liverpool FC Portrait Shoot - UEFA Champions League Final Preview Photo by Michael Regan - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Liverpool just recorded the best points total in club history en route to their first Premier League title, and 19th overall league title. With the Covid-19 pandemic causing a three month stoppage during the season just completed, Liverpool will have not time to rest on their laurels as they kick off the season with the FA Community Shield against Arsenal on August 29. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will take a look at the status of each unit on the team. We started with the goalkeepers and defense, are followed on with the midfield, and are finishing with the attack.


Attack

Liverpool’s front three are widely considered one of the best overall attacking units in the game. They use a combination of stunning pace, magical ball skills, determined work rate, and a seeming telekinetic connection to create and score goals.

Let’s take a look at where things stand with the starters and the reserves, and what questions there are heading into next season.

Starters

The attacking trident of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane are the unquestioned starters in this team. All three players are in the prime of their careers at 28 years old. All three are also under contract until the end of the 2022/2023 season, and there is nothing to suggest any of them are looking to move on any time soon.

Sadio Mané just came off of his best season, with 18 goals and 7 assists. That was good for a goal or assist every 110 minutes. While Mohamed Salah is the bigger name, Mané was the most consistent threat all season long. His defensive work rate should not be overlooked, either. His ability to track back and help lock down the left flank with Andrew Robertson. He looks primed to be in the conversation for a Ballon D’Or.

Mohamed Salah, according to some, had a “down” season. It was his first time not having at least a share of the Golden Boot while playing for Liverpool. All he did was score 19 goals and provide 10 assists for the year (a goal or assist every 99 minutes). That’s a better rate than anyone not on Manchester City (Kevin de Bruyne was at goal involvement every 84 minutes). Salah is still a streaky finisher, and his lethal form in front of goal abandoned him in the final stretch of the season.

The final part of the trio, Roberto Firmino, didn’t have a great statistical season on the surface. The biggest difference statistically between last season and this season was the Brazilian’s conversion rate (9% down from 15%). Still, respected pundits, coaches, and former players all recognize just how important Firmino is to this side. Firmino’s tactical understanding of his role is outstanding. He drags defenders around to create pockets of space for the aforementioned Mané and Salah to move into. Firmino also combines Brazilian flair in tight spaces (Roberto Soldado is still looking for his soul), stunning vision, and a tenacious pressing work rate to be quite possibly the most complete forward in the game.

The biggest concern for this group is just how many minutes they can continue to put on their legs season in and season out. They have all managed to stay relatively healthy, with just a few stretches out injured for each. Still, at some point, those minutes will catch up with them, especially Salah and Mané who use their ridiculous pace to their advantage. That’s not really a worry for next season in particular, but it would be nice to feel like there are players who can rotate in to help keep them fresh. Tired legs have been an issue in the past, especially during the insanely busy stretches of December and January.

The Bench

While the front three are set and settled, the bench has many questions. Liverpool signaled going into this offseason that they were finally ready to address some succession planning in the attack, while also hopefully helping ease the load on the starters legs. The biggest question seems to be whether the players needed are already in the squad, or if help is needed from outside the club.

Two of the primary back ups from the last couple of seasons, Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri, seem like they could be moving on. Still somehow only 25, Origi has been linked with the likes of Lazio, Newcastle, and most recently Aston Villa. The cult hero Origi has scored some of the biggest goals on the largest of stages, but he’s never really consistently meshed with the rest of the attack. He seems like he could potentially thrive in a system that is not quite as focused on patterns of play.

Shaqiri spent much of the season injured, and even when he was healthy, he rarely featured. The diminutive wide forward only played 182 minutes in the league last season. The 28 year old has three more years on his contract, but seems like he will soon be surpassed by the precocious young talent of Harvey Elliott.

If those two do not move on, their roles are likely to be diminished by others in the squad. Takumi Minamino seems like the heir apparent to Roberto Firmino’s false nine role. Minamino arrive in January, and like most of Klopp’s signings, was given time to settle in with the squad before getting integrated into the first team. The Japanese forward showed great dribbling skills, an eagerness to combine, as well as a willingness to dig in and press when he got significant minutes late in the season. Unfortunately, he was often paired with the aforementioned Origi and an out of form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so not much of the work he did to create bore fruit. While he needs to bulk up a little to help handle some of the more agrarian center backs cough Burnley cough, he should be able to showcase his skills if given the chance with Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.

The other main option for the central striker position is Rhian Brewster. The young Englishman had a phenomenal half season on loan to Swansea, where he scored 11 goals in 22 games. While Minamino seems a natural fit for Firmino’s role, Brewster is much more of a fox in the box. The 20 year old scored 9 of his 11 goals with his first touch on the ball. His conversion rate is also unreal, scoring on over 20% of his shots. That type of pure goal scoring ability is special. The biggest question is can Brewster be more involved in the attack beyond just putting the goal in the back of the net. With Swansea, Brewster was not very involved in link up play, and wasn’t asked to do much defensive work. As Audun has pointed out, Brewster may slot into the Salah role instead, which is really the point striker in Liverpool’s system. Depending on recruitment, Brewster could potentially go back out on loan again this season, but would seem likely to be in the top flight.

Another option for the wide forward on the right is the 17 year old Harvey Elliott. While he’s probably still a season or two away from being a regular in the match day squad, Klopp has shown throughout his career that his is willing to throw a youngster in if he feels they are ready. In his limited minutes, Elliott has shown vision and tactivle nous that belies his tender age. While not a burner like Salah, Elliott has great short area quickness and phenomenal close control. He’s also shown the ability to drop a perfectly weighed ball on a dime with his left foot. He seems like a player equally able to create for others as to score himself. A boyhood Liverpool fan (he has the receipts), he seems happy to put his head down and work with the first team in training, biding his time until Klopp deems him ready.

Harry Wilson is the final piece of the puzzle. The Welshman started strong while at loan to Bournemouth, but the goals dried up as the season went on. His long shots and free kick ability are elite tier, but he doesn’t have the speed or athletic ability likely needed to thrive in this Liverpool attack. Still, he’s been seasoned in the Championship and Premier League, and could offer depth for the short term. Most likely, he’ll end up elsewhere of Liverpool can find someone willing to meet their valuation.

What To Watch For In The Transfer Market

Well, Timo Werner was all but signed, sealed, and delivered until he wasn’t. It’s been hashed, rehashed, and hashed again as to what happened. With the uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic, FSG seemed unwilling to trigger the release clause, but instead wanted Werner to wait one more year. That left the window wide open for Chelsea to swoop in.

With Plan A gone thanks to their own doing, Liverpool have moved on. Adama Traore was a name that was mentioned throughout much of the spring and summer, but those rumors seemed to have dried up. Wolves are in an extremely strong position, having the Spaniard under contract for three more seasons, and will demand a premium for his services.

The other name that has come to the fore recently is Ismaïla Sarr. The Senegalese compatriot of Sadio Mané had a solid season for the relegated Watford after two strong seasons for Rennes in France. Sarr seems like a player ready who could spend a year or two as a dependable role player before breaking out in a big way. The 22 year old boasts pace to burn, good close control, and underrated vision. While Watford were frequently dire, Sarr seemed to still pop up in dangerous positions, even if it wasn’t recognized by his teammates. He showed a propensity to make great outside in runs between the fullback and center back. He also played as a right footed attacker on the right, so playing as an inverted winger on the left could see his goal numbers jump. While Watford were relegated, they will not sell Sarr for cheap. They have set their valuation at £40 million for the player they bought a year ago for £30 million or so.

On the potential outgoing side of the equation to raise funds are the aforementioned Origi, Shaqiri, and Wilson, as well as Taiwo Awoniyi. The Nigerian striker finally found his footing with Mainz after the restart, and was their most consistent goal threat before suffering a gnarly head injury. He was never able to secure a UK work permit, and that seems even more unlikely in the current political climate.

Parting Questions

Does Brewster stay with Liverpool or go back out on loan? How many of Origi, Shaqiri, and Wilson move on this season? Do FSG and Liverpool pony up for a wide forward to provide depth across the attacking band? Does Harvey Elliott earn himself a regular spot on the bench?