The injury is a crushing blow as Mané is one of Liverpool’s three best players (an argument could be made that he’s undisputed number one). Liverpool’s front three has been an absolutely massive part of the way they play, with Mané’s excellent runs off the ball and his ability to be decisive in the final third a huge part of that. So how will the Reds cope with his absence? Well we here at Squawka have come up with four alternatives for Liverpool to consider.
The first and most obvious option for Liverpool is to reach back into last season’s playbook and simply include Philippe Coutinho as one of the front three again. In 2017/18 the Reds have unleashed a full-on front three with Salah and Mané as flying wing-forwards, but last season they had Coutinho operating in a much more creative role as a wing-playmaker.
Coutinho can still thrive there. He has the dribbling and passing skills, not to mention the pace as well as the ability to hammer shots on goal. He’ll drift off the flank into central zones and overwhelm defences. Sure, playing him there may slow the speed of Liverpool’s lightning-fast transitions but that’s going to happen anyway without Mané, may as well get some extra match control out of it.
Solanke The Striker
Of course, Klopp has been playing Coutinho deeper for a reason. As he ages, the Brazilian is morphing into something of an Iniesta-esque creative central midfielder. Jurgen Klopp and his international coach Tite have acknowledged this and are encouraging it as part of his evolution.
So, say you don’t want to disrupt Coutinho’s rhythm, what do you do? Why, you bring in Dominic Solanke of course. The young Englishman was signed from Chelsea this summer and is bursting with the kind of game-changing talent that Liverpool could use up-front.
Move Roberto Firmino out on the left to provide a skillful and defensively diligent weapon to prevent any right-back making too many forward raids and then in attack, instead of a false nine go with an actual nine. Put Solanke up-top and play off him in his natural role. Mohamed Salah has shown at Roma that he thrives playing with an actual no. 9, so why not unleash that?
Obviously Daniel Sturridge is an option here but he’s a busted flush at this point. Better to give Solanke a go so that, even in failure, he will be able to grow and progress. Plus Sturridge still remains a decent option off the bench where his reserves of sheer talent could make him useful.
Back To Basics
Liverpool could, feasibly, change up the formation from the 4-3-3 that Klopp has come to use at Anfield. In an effort to maintain both a genuine threat out-wide but crucially maximise the freedom and impact of the two best players he has available to him: Mohamed Salah and Coutinho.
A 4-4-1-1 would give Coutinho and Salah essential free-roles in the middle. Neither being a true no. 9, this is a system that would live on the break, playing deep at first with compact lines and then exploding forwards with two attacks who would be unencumbered by defensive work.
Wide in midfield would be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner. Both are comfortable in central and wide areas, allowing Liverpool to stay compact when they don’t have the ball and then be expansive when they do. Ox’s pace would be a vital counter-attacking asset, whilst Milner’s passing and crossing have the potential to cut a team open (Salah is surprisingly good in the air).
Should Liverpool show up fashionably late to the 3-4-2-1 party? Well, why not? Last season Arsene Wenger sought to fix his ailing defence by simply adding more defenders and quite incredibly it actually worked (although now he’s obsessed with the system, but anyway). There’s no reason why Klopp couldn’t do the same given the defensive shambles that Liverpool have been. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren would surely benefit from having Joe Gomez being by their side permanently.
In attack the system would put Coutinho and Salah behind the striker as a sort of parallel universe version of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. They’d play the roles similarly too, with Coutinho operating on the ball as an all-encompassing creator whilst Salah did most of his damage making runs off it into dangerous spaces and threatening goal. Firmino would play much as he does right now, at times pushing on to be a true no. 9, but often dropping deep to add control and create mayhem.
Out-wide, Alberto Moreno can embrace his destiny and play as a wing-back whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can accept the fact they he’ll never be Steven Gerrard and do the same. Both men excel at carrying the ball and Moreno at least can deliver a quality final pass. Meanwhile in central midfield Can and Henderson could play their true roles as box-to-box midfielders with aplomb.
To play Manchester United?
Solanke the Striker
Manchester United are going to sit deep against Liverpool. Way deep. Mariana Trench deep. Terrence Malick film deep. Chicago-style pizza deep. Yeah, it’s going to be intense. Sitting deep almost totally nullifies a traditional false nine because it limits the space they can create with their movement. So leave the false nine aside. Obviously Liverpool could play on the break in a basic 4-4-1-1, but as United will do similar that’d result in a 0-0 result and the most boring game ever.
Unleashing the 3-4-2-1 could make sense for a different opponent, but against Manchester United? It would expose Liverpool’s defence to the terrifying pace of the United attack. Last season it would have worked, but no Zlatan Ibrahimovic is gone with Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford as guaranteed starters, it’d be suicide to push as high as the 3-4-2-1 demands.
Which leads us back to the standard 4-3-3 with Dominic Solanke leading the line. This would unleash Coutinho on a Manchester United midfield that is without Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini. Down to the bare bones, United couldn’t afford to play hack-a-thon against Coutinho as they did with Eden Hazard in the FA Cup last season, and playing it clean gives Liverpool an edge.
Meanwhile playing an orthodox striker like Solanke would push United back and provide a genuine pivot for Firmino and Salah to play off. Solanke would take up the attention of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly, meaning that Salah would find himself 1v1 against whoever United have thrown into their left-back merry-go-round that day. This would give Liverpool a colossal advantage in creating openings against the league’s best defence, an advantage they will sorely need if they want to get the win they crave.