THE £39 million signing of Mohamed Salah this summer has added another dynamic to the attacking presence of Liverpool. The skillful Egyptian had a significant role in AS Roma’s front line last season, bagging 15 goals and 11 assists in the Serie A to help the capital club reach second place.
Salah’s role at Roma was fluid, varying from the traditional inverted winger, cutting inside from the right flank to shoot or lay off with his stronger left foot, to playing central, either as a second striker to Edin Dzeko or as a lone frontman himself. Now at Liverpool, the question stands of where his ability can best be implemented as part of the Reds’ forward line.
For the most part of last season, Jurgen Klopp utilised a 4-3-3 formation, the key being the proficiency of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane up front. The trio scored a combined 37 league goals and Liverpool averaged 2.06 points per game when all three were on the pitch. Coutinho’s dazzling flair from the left wing, coupled with Mane’s blistering pace as a traditional right-hand winger complemented Firmino’s relentless work rate in the centre to create an attack that was often formidable.
As of July 25, Salah has played in three games for Liverpool, scoring twice. It looks like Klopp prefers the Egyptian out on the right flank, as he was at Roma with notable success. Whilst Mane has since returned to training after the injury he sustained in April, it’s debatable whether he will return to his traditional right side after Salah’s arrival.
In interviews, however, Klopp is determined not to anchor certain players to certain positions, seemingly more focused on his squad’s versatility than their individual roles; at a press conference in Hong Kong, the German manager claimed that Coutinho cannot be ‘fixed’ to a position, instead preferring to play the Brazilian with free reign. Klopp also stated in an interview with the Liverpool Echo, that the Liverpool forward line will change in accord with the requirements of each game; although the German did express his admiration of the inverted winger system at Bayern Munich, between wide-men Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
With Klopp reluctant to confirm a solid XI, only inferences can be made. His praise for the Robben-Ribery dynamic suggests that we may witness Sadio Mane being transferred to the left side; his goals last season, and his ability to cut in mean that the Senegalese winger should be able to adapt. Presumably, on this basis, Salah will occupy the right side, to turn inside on his left foot, in classic Robben style. Roberto Firmino will likely occupy the centre-forward role (or false 9, depending on how you see it), as he did last season.
This leaves Liverpool’s star man, Coutinho. As the FC Barcelona board prepare a fresh attempt to buy the Brazilian, despite claims from Liverpool that he’s going nowhere, the question persists of whether Coutinho will even still be in England for the first league match, let alone where he will play. If he does remain at Liverpool, his position potentially taken by Mane, perhaps Coutinho can occupy a classic no. 10 role behind the front line. With the Brazilian playing each game as a trequartista, mazing his way through the centre and given the space to roam, he will contribute an essential creativity to the front line that the Reds struggled to find in crucial moments last season.
Klopp’s emphasis on player versatility is something fans have seen in action, as Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, both traditionally centre forwards, were played out on the wings with varying success; indeed, it was Sturridge’s tactical frustration that led to fresh rumours of a transfer back in August. Whilst both are talented players, it’s safe to expect bench roles for the pair in upcoming season.
Klopp’s strategy, a marked high press that demands a huge effort and work rate by each player, was undoubtedly aided by a lack of cup commitments that allowed for rest in between league games. This season, especially with the possibility of a Champions League campaign, Salah will be expected to become a part of the process; at Roma, he played 41 games, more than any Liverpool player, however Klopp will be looking to rest him when he can, with the options he now has available. Where Salah will play, or anyone else for that matter, is still not certain, but it would be a surprise to see Klopp deviate from a system that was, at times, unplayable last season.
Regardless of whether a title challenge is on the cards for Liverpool this season, one thing is certain: the club will be looking to get more goals amidst a campaign of more games. Last season, Liverpool were blessed with plenty of time in between matches, without the pressure of domestic or European cup ties. Now, with the potential of Champions League football, and the almost-certain expectancy from the club board for Klopp to mount a cup run, Liverpool face a challenging season; far more so than the last, where the team often struggled without either Mane or Coutinho providing the magic from the flanks. Hopefully, with Salah now on the squad books, this not only allows for more resting, but also the fluidity that Klopp desires.