Jurgen Klopp’s 'Fab Four' was not built overnight – now Liverpool’s new attack is taking shape
Among his many qualities, Liverpool’s new record Premier League goalscorer Mohamed Salah has an excellent memory.
Before leading Jürgen Klopp’s forward line to its annihilation of Manchester United, Salah issued a reminder that, contrary to popular belief, the legendary attacking trio including himself, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino took months to gel.
“We could not do the pressing in the first season. It took time to do it properly. Our system – counter-pressing – is not easy to adapt to quickly,” said Salah.
It is informative to verify Salah’s recollection. Although Salah hit the ground running with an extraordinary 44 goals in his first season, and Firmino and Mané were already making an impression with moments of individual brilliance, the front three evolved rather than arrived fully formed.
In the first 19 Premier League games of Salah’s debut Anfield season, he started alongside both Firmino and Mané just seven times as Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke were part of a forward line rotation. When what became the established trio did start, results and performances were erratic. Liverpool won only three of those first seven games with Salah, Mané and Firmino upfront – an inauspicious start to what would become the most feared trident in European football.
The front three which demolished United 7-0 must travel considerable distance to justify early comparisons to the one which fired Liverpool to Premier League and European glory, Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo selected with Salah for only the fourth time on Sunday.
There are, however, encouraging numbers. Those four games have yielded 10 goals and four assists. Mané, Salah and Firmino had seven goals and five assists between them over the same period.
As is often the case when charting Liverpool’s rise under Klopp, all roads tend to lead to the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million in 2018, when despite the clamour for the manager and owners to buy a direct replacement, the starting XI became more balanced.
The turning point was the visit of another Manchester side, Pep Guardiola’s City, beaten in an Anfield thriller on Jan 14, 2018, the front three all scoring to inflict the soon-to-be-champions’ first league defeat. Klopp felt it was a symbolic moment after a high-profile departure.
“It’s not that I said in a meeting, ‘Boys, it would help a lot if you could win tonight so nobody speaks about Phil Coutinho anymore’,” Klopp said after that game.
“But it was important to show we can play without him and we did that. That’s a very important statement.”
You could replace the name Coutinho with Mané, or to some extent Firmino given his imminent exit, and Klopp might have expressed the same sentiments on Sunday night.
What changed five years ago was the interconnections between players who had familiarised on the training pitch for the previous six months, aided by the emergence of the flying full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and a more pragmatic midfield allowing what was in effect a ‘front five’ to run riot.
Salah, Mané and Firmino started 14 Premier League games together over the second half of that season, and their legend grew.
Klopp hopes these echoes resonate as he tries to end this campaign in the top four, and sprint out of the traps to mount a title bid next season. But there is already sure to be one key difference.
The Liverpool coach is a matter of weeks from a situation he has craved all season: a selection dilemma upfront. Luis Díaz is already in light training and Diogo Jota is edging closer to full match sharpness. Neither expect to be understudies when everyone is fit, so attacking responsibilities will be shared more than in previous years. That was the plan in July.
“We had two or three or four years where it was always clear before the pre-season we started up front with Sadio, Bobby and Mo. Now the door is open for pretty much everybody,” Klopp said, last summer's plan wrecked when Díaz and Jota were injured.
Mané, Salah and Firmino also had an athletic midfield trio with a similar age profile to ensure the high intensity was more than occasional, and Liverpool spent big on Virgil van Dijk in 2018 to fill the glaring void at centre-back.
The euphoria at full-time on Sunday does not change Klopp’s priority. His next-gen attack looks in safe hands. The expensive midfield upgrade comes next.