Liverpool’s forward flexibility, and how it can continue to be utilised

Jürgen Klopp possesses an exciting range of attacking options – both in terms of personnel and potential approaches – as we head into the final weeks of the season. James Noble takes a look at some of the intriguing possibilities.

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There appears a genuinely healthy level of choice when it comes to how the Reds have structured their attack in recent times – and in how they could do so as the season enters an exciting-looking final few weeks.

Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, Takumi Minamino. Those players, arguably, currently represent the seven potential contributors to what is generally a three-man Reds forward-line.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones – most often midfield players – have also featured in that area of the pitch, while 17-year-old forward Kaide Gordon has shown plenty of potential as a longer-term option.

Díaz’s January arrival from FC Porto felt like it opened up several avenues of opportunity at Anfield. Alongside Salah, Mané, Jota and Firmino, he effectively became the fifth player competing for a regular place in the three-man forward line.

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The levels continue to be evidently high. Salah has 30 club goals in all competitions this term. Jota 21. Mané 19. Firmino 11. Díaz has four since he signed, which gives him 20 for the campaign when factoring in his Porto numbers.

All of a sudden, the Colombian’s addition alone meant that – particularly in the Premier League and Champions League – the triumvirate at the top of the pitch were likely to be three from that five, rather than from four.

Immediately, more room for rotation – an additionally valuable entity given, when Díaz joined, both Salah and Mané were still playing for their countries at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

Immediately, an injury or two within the club’s attacking contingent would potentially feel like less of a stretch on the squad.

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That could be seen in mid-to-late February, when both Jota and Firmino came away with knocks from the 2-0 Champions League round of 16 first-leg win at Internazionale.

Immediately – and potentially most significantly – there was additional scope for rotation in the positional sense. For flexibility.

For, in effect, shifting players’ positions without it feeling like they were out of position. A fun prospect.

The cumulative impact, the domino effect, of Díaz’s arrival felt an exciting possibility when he signed – and has often been thrillingly evident in the nearly three months since.

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After making his full debut in the 2-0 Premier League win over Leicester City at Anfield on February 10, on the left of a front-three that had Firmino down the middle and Jota to the right – with Salah on the bench and Mané absent due to their respective AFCON exertions – his next five starts came alongside the African duo.

3-1 and 6-0 home victories over Norwich City and Leeds United, the Carabao Cup final success against Chelsea at Wembley, the 1-0 Anfield win over West Ham United, and the 2-0 triumph at Brighton and Hove Albion, each saw Díaz start on the left of the front three, Salah on the right and Mané through the middle.

As Jamie Carragher referenced during Sky Sports’ coverage of Tuesday’s 4-0 Anfield victory over Manchester United, Mané has now performed brilliantly on a consistent basis in each of Liverpool’s front-three positions.

He was exceptional on the right within his debut season in 2016/17. He shifted to the left upon Salah’s arrival in the summer of 2017 and was superb from there and – especially since Díaz’s introduction – he has been brilliant centrally.

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The Senegalese’s unique, hybrid-like set of attributes has allowed him to represent a consistent, varied threat over the years.

His strength, speed, creativity, aerial ability and cleverness of movement in and out of possession – amongst other things – make him consistently difficult to pin down.

Evidently, that can be applied in the positional sense too. Such traits have seen him adapt and pose a different but consistently rounded threat from both flanks – most regularly within a 4-3-3 but also a 4-2-3-1 – and, of course, centrally.

So that’s one forward who has shown themselves capable of playing – and playing well – virtually anywhere across the front line.

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The same can arguably be said for Jota – who has played each of the three positions, although he generally seems most effective either from the left or centrally.

Díaz has, again, been superb from the left flank in his relatively short time at the club so far. He chiefly operated from that side within Porto’s 4-4-2 and it is generally that area of the pitch that he starts from for Colombia. It feels evident, then, that that represents his best position at present.

However, there have been reports that there is an understandable feeling within LFC that he could contribute sizeably down the middle too.

His pace, skill in tight areas, and finishing prowess could certainly be valuable in there as well. He also has quite a leap on him, which is perhaps one trait of his that we haven’t seen too much of yet.

He has drifted into the centre at times within certain games, so there might just be hints of what could be to come on that front.

He’s also played on the right in both the 2-0 league win at Arsenal and the 3-3 Anfield draw with Benfica. He was relatively quiet in the first of those but did look effective against the Lisbon club. Another evidently, excitingly, flexible option.

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Firmino generally feels best placed at the centre of the front-three – or as the primary or second striker within a 4-2-3-1 – with his awareness and linking capabilities put to best use there, but he has operated from the left at times too.

Salah, meanwhile, is rarely likely to shift from the right of the front-three. Rotation has at times brought him to the centre of it – and he has, down the years, generally played more as the striker within the Reds’ 4-2-3-1 than as the player on the right.

Especially this season, though, his presence on the right has been key.

The rotating triangle down that flank has so far represented a notable part of the Reds’ evolution in 2021/22.

Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, the right-sided midfielder – most often Jordan Henderson – and Salah interchange positions within it to create advantageous angles for each.

That, in turn, has at times felt like it has expanded the Reds’ attacking capabilities and made it that bit more difficult to foresee where they may threaten from.

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As a left-footer – particularly, it could be said, when Elliott isn’t involved – Salah offers an important angle-changer within this context, alongside his numerous other traits.

The Egyptian continues to be a wonderfully direct, determined, skilful and relentless presence for the team.

Minamino and Origi may be the senior forwards who are playing less often – especially with the current lack of injuries within the squad – but their own specific, and potentially crucial, attributes are also evident when looking back over this season and beyond.

That, most likely, makes them valuably tough opponents on the training field as well.

Minamino is another who feels capable of operating to a good level on either flank or through the middle, although it could be said that it is simultaneously difficult to pick out his best position. That could be seen as a compliment, of sorts, as much as a source of puzzlement.

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His finishing ability has been noticeable this term, either way. Thus far, he’s scored nine goals in 23 appearances – of which, only eight have been starts.

That included that crucial strike to make it 3-3, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, against Leicester at Anfield in December’s Carabao Cup quarter-final. Certainly one of the season’s standout moments and, arguably, the key moment on the road to Wembley and ultimately lifting the trophy.

Having someone like him – who’s shown an increasing degree of savviness in front of goal – available from the bench or otherwise, feels a good place to be. That’s part of the happy challenge at present, though.

Minamino hasn’t been on the bench since the Champions League quarter-final first-leg at Benfica on April 5, and hasn’t played since being introduced in the 64th minute of the 1-0 FA Cup last-eight win at Nottingham Forest on March 20.

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Such is the depth of quality – and relative clean bill of health – within the squad at the moment. As Klopp has said on a few occasions, though, that is a situation that can change very quickly.

Certain positions, and sections of squads, can swiftly become stretched, such is football’s fast-changing nature.

Indeed, Origi was likely only on the bench for the 4-0 Anfield success against Manchester United on Tuesday because of the foot injury that Firmino picked up in the closing moments of Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final victory against Manchester City.

Which brings us onto the Belgian, who’s scored five club goals in 15 appearances – of which, only five have been starts – in ’21/22 thus far.

He is another who has shown himself as capable of being flexible in the past. He has put in good stints down the left flank, for instance. It now, though, appears to be the case that – when he is involved – it will generally be down the middle.

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That is what feels like his natural position. A central striker. He remains someone who feels like he can be both a focal point and a runner in behind – a stretcher of the play.

Perhaps not to the extent of Mané, Díaz or Salah in the latter sense, but he still feels like another footballer with a valuable range of traits.

And that includes, in his case, that happy knack of scoring big goals – and unique goals – that he has developed and continued to build upon down the years.

Already this season, he’s come off the bench to score a stoppage time winner at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League.

He also arguably produced one of the finishes of the season with his scorpion-like volley in October’s 2-0 Carabao Cup fourth round win at Preston North End.

Intriguingly, too, he’s at least twice helped the Reds to change shape within a game and make good use of it.

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His 68th-minute introduction at Wolves in early December saw the Merseysiders switch from their regular 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. The same then occurred against Norwich in mid-February, when he and Thiago Alcântara joined the action six minutes earlier, with the Canaries 1-0 up.

It was soon 1-1. Then 2-1 and, in the end, 3-1 to Liverpool.

He effectively became part of a front-four where he and Mané were flanked by Salah on the right and Díaz on the left, with Henderson and Thiago acting as a double midfield pivot.

The additionally incisive, line-breaking passing offered from midfield by the likes of Thiago arguably represents a further source of Liverpool’s ongoing evolution.

That extra attacking body proved valuable against Norwich, as each of Mané, Salah and Díaz – with his first goal for the club – found space to score.

Origi may then, potentially, prove to be someone who can offer both a fresh face and a fresh approach if and when he is involved – either from the start or the bench.

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That extra bit of variation, of unpredictability, could prove crucial in the final weeks of 2021/22 – as could his ability to deliver big contributions in big moments.

‘Contributions’ feels like one of those potentially key – and widely applicable – words, in this context.

The depth and range of the Reds’ current forward options – and, indeed, in other positions too – means that there is all the more potential for a variety of contributions.

Seismic ones, subtle ones, regular ones, sporadic ones. They could all come from several different sources, in several different ways and in several different contexts between now and the conclusion of the campaign.

The range of potential and possibilities on that front continues to feel well worth being excited about.


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James Noble

Contributor. 20-year-old uni student studying sports journalism. Southern Red.

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