Injury looks set to rob Liverpool of Mohamed Salah for longer than they thought.
The Egypt forward is one of the main reasons Liverpool are European champions and on course to ending a 30-year championship drought. Salah’s form this season, however, could be described as lukewarm. In fact, it is a while since suggestions starting appearing that Sadio Mane is Liverpool’s more important forward.
Salah is no longer judged by normal standards. He has so far registered nine goals and created four more across 17 matches in all competitions. Not a bad return, but you’d expect more of the man who holds the record for the most goals within a single 38-game Premier League season (32). And so would he.
However, it’s looking very much like he won’t be adding to those totals in the Reds forthcoming matches. The 27-year-old’s return date after sustaining a recent ankle injury is unknown, according to Sky, and he will at the very least miss the Crystal Palace game along with left-back Andrew Robertson, who could be replaced in the line-up by Joe Gomez or James Milner.
It is a blow for Jurgen Klopp, who will now be considering life temporarily without a player who had not missed a single top-flight game through injury prior to this season. It is also worth noting that the only match Salah has missed in the 2019/20 campaign ended in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, the only occasion in which they dropped points.
But what is life without a challenge? Here are three ways we could see Liverpool line up if the rehabilitation of their “Egyptian King” continues to drag on.
1. A direct replacement
Jose Mourinho made a salient point while outlining the reason he thinks Liverpool are champions-in-waiting. The former Manchester United boss described them as the ‘complete puzzle’, subsequently praising how Klopp’s system is adapted perfectly to the quality of their players.
Undoubtedly, Salah is a key piece. But would Klopp alter his system for one man, no matter his importance? He may not have to. There isn’t a like for like replacement at the German tactician’s disposal but that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who can’t come in and do a job.
We already saw that in Liverpool’s recent visit to Old Trafford – where Salah sat out only his third Premier League game joining from AS Roma – when ‘cult hero’ Divock Origi filled in. He is likely to get the nod at Selhurst Park after returning from the international break.
This means the midfield composition remains intact. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum make up the pivotal midfield triumvirate that allows their creative full-backs to operate as the creators, while Roberto Firmino assumes the ‘false nine’ role and Sadio Mane takes up the opposite flank.
2. Unleash the Brewster
Klopp loves his 4-3-3, his most commonly used formation since answering the Anfield call. But that’s not to say he’s been rigid. Liverpool have played in multiple systems, either as a reaction to an opposition or based around those who he could field. In a recent League Cup win over Arsenal, for example, the former Borussia Dortmund coach deployed a 4-2-3-1 and that could potentially make a return.
Back then, with no Salah in sight, Klopp had teenage striker Rhian Brewster leading the line and this could be the opportunity he’s been waiting for. Brewster, highly thought of in Merseyside, has yet to make his Premier League debut, with both of his two Liverpool appearances coming in English football’s second major domestic cup competition.
Brewster in that showdown with the Gunners had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing in the space behind him. The rejuvenated Portsmouth-born footballer offers Klopp many possibilities. In a 4-3-3 he could play as one of the two central midfielders, but in this system Oxlade-Chamberlain has proven the ‘number 10’ role is right up his alley. Being the goalscoring threat that he is – ‘Ox’ has five goals in his last four starts for club and country – is another reason to consider him.
This would leave Firmino and Mane playing from the flanks – or else see Firmino play the deep-lying midfielder role and Oxlade-Chamberlain stationed opposite to Mane – with at least six players in contention to fill that midfield double pivot.
3. Go old school?
Why not go crazy? Klopp is not averse from throwing a tactical grenade into the mix from time to time. Those days are few and far between now he’s settled on a winning formula, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Bamboozling the opposition and keeping them guessing is one way to stay out in front. Everyone knows Salah is missing, but would anyone anticipate the Reds deviating from their tried and tested 4-3-3?
Of course, every scenario will be considered by those facing the European champions. One proper left-field alternative is playing a 4-4-2, which Liverpool ended up doing in that emphatic 3-1 win over title rivals Manchester City before this current break. Playing from the onset with two banks of four is something Klopp has done 18 times overall, most recently in their 4-3 win over Crystal Palace earlier this year.
Back then, Liverpool started Salah and Firmino up top with Mane and Naby Keïta occupying the flanks. Now starting the Guinean international would be a turn up for the books, a more likely scenario would see Milner (with Gomez at left-back if Robertson is not available) and Oxlade-Chamberlain fill the wide berths either side of a striking duo comprising Mane and Firmino.
Again, there are many options in central midfield; to bring up that aforementioned victory over Palace, the 18-time English champions fielded Henderson and Fabinho, both have the necessary lungs to cover the ground linking defence and attack.