Liverpool are at a crossroads.
With Mohamed Salah’s contract negotiations having unequivocally now reached the ‘wrangling’ stage, Sadio Mané looking like an increasingly diminished version of his glorious best, and Roberto Firmino turning 31 this year, they are now starting to contemplate life after their famous front three. In truth, as the 2020 signing of Diogo Jota attests, they have actually been contemplating it for some time.
As good as Jota is, he alone is not enough, and while when they will need to replace the star trio who remains uncertain, it will surely happen during the summer 2022 and winter 2023 windows. The next 12 months, in other words. And this – replacing a triumvirate whose 299 goals since Salah signed in 2017 have been so central to everything good about this Liverpool side – is a tortuously difficult task.
Because it is not just the goals. The three are also responsible for both Liverpool’s build-up play, chance creation and the high-press that is so central to Klopp’s heavy-metal football. And, what’s more, they each operate in nuanced roles with unique skill sets. For Firmino to be replaced like-for-like, Klopp needs to find a forward-playmaker hybrid equal measures combative and creative, and willing to drift all across the front line and deep into midfield.
For Mané (or, more accurately, the Mané of the previous two seasons), you’d need a goalscorer with pace to run in behind off the left flank and the technical ability to carry the ball past opponents in tight spaces and create chances from out wide. The complete winger, basically.
And Salah… Well, you essentially have to replace the best footballer in the world; scorer of 48% of the trio’s Premier League goals since he arrived, responsible for more assists than Firmino, Jota and Mane combined this season and capable of seemingly anything.
Yet, Herculean as it may be, this is the task facing Liverpool. So here, we offer some possible suggestions, and take a look at how they match up against a member of the trio that they could potentially replace (positionally or stylistically). All players are 26 or under, as per FSG’s preference. All data in the graphics is taken from the past season-and-a-half, from top-flight and European games only.
Currently tearing it up as the other two compete at Afcon, Firmino is still very good. He still creates and still presses, and while his goalscoring tallies have fallen consistently since the highs of 2017/18 (25), and he has struggled for game time this year, he still offers Liverpool what no other player does.
However, with Liverpool reportedly not treating negotiations with Firmino with the same level of urgency as others, and links to Barcelona abounding, he does seem the most likely to leave. And if not, a gradual phasing out is a foreseeable prospect.
Dream: Lautaro Martinez
One half of Inter’s Scudetto-winning strike-force last season, and with 11 Serie A goals to his name this term, it is little wonder the 24-year-old Argentine is forever being linked with a move to these shores. And while North London has long been mooted as a potential destination, he has a tenacity that might make him a decent fit for Liverpool should they choose to deviate from both their ‘Moneyball’ persona and, perhaps, an attacking system where their main goal threat operates from right-wing.
He is involved in far less passing than Firmino, and as such his signing would likely necessitate an attacking re-jig. But, as a team, Inter play far fewer final-third passes than Liverpool, anyway; look at the number of final-third passes played by Jota at Wolves and now, and you’ll see the kind of progression Martinez could make in a different environment.
And when it comes to pressing, he and Firmino align. Martinez has won possession in the final third at an average rate of 1.16 per 90 minutes since August 2020, more often than any other forward in Serie A.
He also has an admirer of particular relevance here. He “is one of the most exciting strikers in the world”, said a certain Mr Klopp, after the Champions League draw paired their two clubs. A dream option, then, but perhaps one that could actually happen?
Realistic: Diogo Jota
Signed ostensibly as a fourth attacking option (with a statistical profile most like Mane’s), the versatile Portuguese has found himself increasingly at home in Firmino’s central slot this season, playing more Premier League minutes by December than he did in the whole of 2020/21.
More of a goalscorer, with significantly more touches in the opposition box than Firmino, Jota does compare well in terms of his combative instincts. He has won more duels than the Brazilian, and his average rate of winning possession in the final third (1.1 per 90) is not far off the mark. Like Martinez, he does fall short in terms of creativity. But then again, so does almost everyone. Plus, with Thiago Alcantara seemingly signed to carry more of the creative burden from midfield, it is not inconceivable that Klopp views Jota as a long-term solution here. And it is not inconceivable that it will work.
Wildcard: Amine Gouiri
Alright, as far as wildcards go, someone who has actually been suggested by Liverpool-focussed media is pretty tame. Yet, the fact remains that signing a 21-year-old who only started his first Ligue 1 game last season and is yet to win a full-international cap would represent a gamble.
A gamble, the data suggests, that might well be worth taking. While Gouiri is accustomed to playing on the left of high-flying Nice’s front two, his profile is strikingly similar in all other respects. A creator, a passer and a presser, who likes to dribble as much as Firmino (1.9 take-ons per 90), he really does seem tailor-made for the role. Yes, he is accustomed to a lower standard in Ligue 1, but in terms of his skillset and potential, he looks perfect. In fact, the more you look at it, the less wild this becomes.
Other options elsewhere were considered, none of them quite perfect. Alexander Isak is phenomenally-talented and similarly wide-roaming forward. Darwin Nunez of Benfica is an exciting forward, if also more of a true ‘9’. Takumi Minamino is already at Liverpool, of course. He has been played all across the front line but was originally billed as a No.10 or possible false No.9 when he was signed from RB Salzburg. His goal output is up this year and Klopp speaks highly of him but doubts exist as to whether he’s good enough to be a long-term first-choice option.
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Scorer of possibly the greatest debut goal of all time with that strike against Arsenal, Sadio Mané has been exceptional since the moment he joined in 2016. And while Crystal Palace – against whom he has now netted in an astonishing nine consecutive games – will be very glad to see the back of him, most Liverpool fans will not. However, the performances have seemed to dry up a touch of late, if not necessarily his overall goalscoring rate this season. The bell may not be tolling yet, but a succession plan is surely sensible.
Dream: Serge Gnabry
Apologies Arsenal fans, but it has to be. The player that the Gunners sent on loan to Tony Pulis’ West Brom side, only for him to barely get a kick and demand a transfer back to Germany, has subsequently developed into one of the most complete wingers in Europe. At 26 he is the oldest on this list. But despite playing much of this campaign from the right, he is experienced all across the front line and absolutely a ready-made replacement for Mané.
He really does have it all. His involvements in the opposition box are as high as Mané’s (playing for Bayern Munich helps here, of course) and he wins possession in the final third even more frequently. He creates more chances, takes more shots, and – crucially, given that he is hypothetically replacing a Golden Boot winner – his goal stats are excellent. At 0.6 every 90 minutes, he is Bayern’s second-top performer, behind you-know-who.
Another similarity with Mané: his contract expires next summer. Even so, it would potentially take a club-record-breaking fee to pry him from Bayern, and an equally great effort to convince him to leave.
Realistic: Christopher Nkunku
So insane is the depth of France’s attacking talent, that the fifth-most creative player in the Bundesliga – with 2.77 chances created per 90 – hasn’t yet had a look-in with the national side. Considering reports this week suggest Liverpool are scouting him, and that he is thought to be available for around the £35-40 million mark they like to spend on attackers, he may soon be getting a chance at Anfield.
He looks a hell of an option. Similarly to Mané and Salah, he has a strong fitness record in having played every league game this season and his profile is that of an all-rounder. Not only is he schooled in the Red Bull way (like his would-be predecessor), but he competes for the ball and runs at defenders with similar frequency and success. He may not involve himself in the opposition box as much, but his creative output is seriously impressive. And if Firmino were to be replaced by Jota or a Lautaro-esque figure, his involvement in build-up play would have to be compensated for. Nkunku could well be the man to do it.
Wildcard: Florian Wirtz
Never let it be said that our wildcards are not wild again. Like others we’ve spoken about, this particular move would a) break the bank – Germany’s Bild expect him to eventually fetch a ~£100m fee – and b) necessitate a shake-up in formation. But there is a strong suspicion that this lad is worth it.
Dynamic, supremely gifted, and just 18 years of age, Florian Wirtz is possibly the hottest property in Germany right now. His more creative role sees him outstrip Mané in terms of chances created, expected assists, and also possessions won in the final third. While his goal threat is clearly not at Mané’s level, this campaign, he has a very decent return of eight goals in 22 Bundesliga appearances.
While he can play on the left, Wirtz is far happier in a central role, so is not a like-for-like replacement by any means. However, were Liverpool to sign a centre forward, Jota could comfortably fill the space vacated by Mané, leaving this prodigious young thing free to pull the strings behind a front three, à la Coutinho in that gluttonous half-season he had with our trio, back in 2017. Quite the prospect.
“If he leaves in 2023 or 2024, he can choose [his next] club: Barcelona, Madrid, Bayern, Liverpool. I think he would do well with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, as the successor to Sadio Mané,” Frankfurt great Karl-Heinz Korbel recently told Sport Bild, and all we can say is that we 100% picked Wirtz for this article before reading that.
There are a number of other options, similar to Wirtz, in that while they do play off the left, they are naturally not as advanced as Mané. Mikel Oyarzabal of Sociedad, Goncalo Guedes at Valencia, and Rafael Leao at Milan are all having fantastic campaigns, and would be interesting additions to any squad.
Left until the end, because for all the arguments about sticking to a salary policy and stability in the dressing room, let’s face it: you’d pay him what he wants. Quite simply, he’s a magician, and on the evidence of this year, we may well only now be entering the peak-Salah years.
However, judging by the £100m+ fee that Real Madrid paid for Eden Hazard when he only had one year left on his deal, there is potentially a windfall to be had. And, as the travails at Arsenal have shown – sorry guys, promise there’s no agenda – there is a danger to offering a thirty-year-old that final payday, and therefore, an argument for cashing in.
Dream: Mohamed Salah
No. Can’t do it. There isn’t a single footballer alive as good as Salah at the moment, let alone in his position. Give him a new deal, he doesn’t go all Ozil, and Liverpool stay brilliant: there’s the dream scenario.
The only player that really comes close to having such complete, high-output attacking metrics is Kylian Mbappé. But Real Madrid have (probably) destroyed all hopes of Mbappé 2022.
It was a toss-up between Raphinha and the next name on this list as to who should be considered a more realistic option. But a combination of recency bias and some fairly spurious reasoning that we will come to means the Brazilian gets the nod.
Now, plainly, the most important number doesn’t make up for losing Salah. While he out-duels and out-dribbles Salah, and is the tenth-highest chance-creator in the league this season, Salah’s mountainous goal threat separates them resoundingly.
That said, Salah is one of only three players to have outscored Raphinha in the Premier League this season, in which the Leeds player is averaging way more shots in Patrick Bamford’s absence. His eight-goal total is already his personal best since 2017/18, when he scored 15 for Vitória Guimarães in Portugal’s top flight.
Also, he currently plays for Leeds, and while no one is suggesting that at Liverpool he would start bagging 0.7 Premier League goals per 90, he would almost certainly have more chances. Beyond all this, there’s something about him the statistics don’t quite do justice to, that suggests he would slip straight into that side. Maybe not a perfect replacement for such a statistical behemoth, but a wonderful player nonetheless.
Wildcard: Jarrod Bowen
The second of our ‘wildcard’ picks to have been explicitly linked with Liverpool, this one even more vehemently than the last. Yet, despite that, there remains an incongruity to the idea of him at Liverpool, for now. The fact that he was a Championship player two years ago doesn’t preclude him from performing at a big club like Liverpool (just look at Diogo Jota), but there is a sense that he still has a way to go to prove himself.
Which, of late, he has begun to do. A direct runner who looks to pass adventurously, his expected assists figures are as good as Salah’s in 2021/22, and of all Premier League forwards aged 26 or under, only Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jota have a higher xG this season than Bowen. There is potential there, for both him and this transfer. Just not yet.
While nobody comes close to Salah right now, there are some who could in the future. Karim Adeyemi is a wide forward producing Erling Haaland-esque numbers in the Austrian Bundesliga with RB Salzburg, but with a more Salah-esque build and skill set. He looks destined to join Haaland at Borussia Dortmund, though. Elsewhere, if Jeremy Doku can translate being intensely fun to watch into actual productivity, he could be quite something. Seemingly the best of the bunch though is Crystal Palace’s quadrinational young wide man, Michael Olise. What a left foot that young man has got on him.