The Future of the Front Three
Things evolve. That’s the nature of everything in life, nothing remains the same forever.
It’s been an incredible four and a half years of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane flanking each side of one of Bobby Firmino or Diogo Jota. It has created incredible goals, incredible memories, and achievements galore. But the personnel and the roles of the men who make up that triumvirate have to continue evolving over time like everything else in life.
With the signing of Luis Diaz, we are seeing the beginning of this process. A player with substantial pace to match what Sadio Mane brings us down that left-hand side, Liverpool’s attack is currently as deep as it has ever been. There is reliability at present that simply wasn’t there before the arrival of Salah and Mane, but at the same time a certain level of uncertainty is playing out before our eyes right now, as much of how this evolution plays out depends on what happens with Mo Salah.
The Salah Question
Much has been made about Mo Salah’s future and with his agent stirring the pot by laughing at Jurgen Klopp’s comments on Twitter, there seems to be a growing sense that the club is not going to give the offer he desires. This, naturally, has the #FSGout crowd sharpening their pitchforks.
There are, of course, valid reasons to give him what he wants. He’s the most prolific goal scorer LFC has had in ages. People still often compare him with the likes of Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres, but at this stage, he’s much closer to a Robbie Fowler than either of them. To see him leave now will likely be a big blow to what Liverpool will have built and require substantial reinvestment to replace.
But the club’s position on Salah will no doubt be a coldly logical one. It’s not the same landscape as when they lost Phillipe Coutinho to Barcelona. The reality of who Liverpool is is much different than it was in January 2018. The fact is they are a top-five club in Europe and the entire world.
The Coutinho saga also showed that evolution can be as positive as it can be negative. Liverpool only really found their stride once he departed. The same will not be true of Salah, but it should serve as a reminder that life goes beyond any one player.
Additionally, the financial landscape of football is much different for the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barca is in the midst of what is essentially a financial crisis and rebuild and is currently something of a work in progress rather than a perennial powerhouse. Real Madrid has a limited budget as well and will likely expend most of it purchasing Kylian Mbappe from PSG.
Salah’s Other Options
Outside of Spain, only the biggest clubs in each league can afford Salah without waiting to woo him on a free transfer next summer when his Liverpool contract expires. For Bayern, a move doesn’t make sense or fall in line with how they do business.
Italy is doubtful to be a sufficient attraction for Salah, leaving PSG and France as his other possible destination.
While PSG can no doubt afford his wages, the question is does Salah actually fancy life in Ligue 1. The league has far less profile than any of the others mentioned, doesn’t really do anything to enhance Salah’s profile and he’d be joining a side that has been unable to piece together success at the highest levels of European competition.
Liverpool is Salah’s most attractive option by some distance, likely one of the leading reasons he’s been so public about wanting to stay. While he deserves to be the highest-paid player in the squad, it simply doesn’t make sense for Liverpool to pay him an amount that completely breaks with the wage structure that has seen the club appease its biggest stars over the last five years more consistently.
With a year left on his current deal, it’s not unlikely the club simply runs down Salah’s contract the way it did Gini Wijnauldum and Emre Can, allowing the player to leave for more lucrative pastures. As we’ve seen, the reality is often a case of the grass not being any greener on the other side of the fence and for a 30-year old Mo Salah, it’s a big risk to take for no other reason than the pursuit of more money.
While it is fashionable to think Salah goes, I think he will come to the conclusion that the offer on the table is a good one and accept it. Ultimately, it’s in his best interest, and will see him play out the final chapter of his prime in the comfy confines of an Anfield overseen by Klopp. If he doesn’t, the recruitment team will undoubtedly be ready with a list of targets to continue the trajectory the squad is on.
Mane for the Moment
If there is one thing that we know Jurgen Klopp loves, it’s a versatile player. He’s shown loyalty to guys like James Milner and Jordan Henderson, who have shown an ability to play wherever they are needed on a given day.
Sadio Mane has this same capability, having done shifts in midfield in the past when the team played a 4-2-3-1 and now occupying a center forward role as Diogo Jota and Bobby Firmino have struggled with injuries. Mane has not just performed admirably, but brilliantly even and once again shows his value. With his current deal expiring at the same time as Salah’s, it seems a bit unlikely that the pair of them both get the wages they will seek.
If Salah stays, it’s all too likely we are having conversations about Mane’s contract a year from now as we are about Salah’s now.
If Salah goes, however, Mane will likely remain as he’s the same age as Salah, and an upgrade on his contract would not cost nearly as much given he currently makes around half of what Salah pulls in. His role in a setup void of Salah may take on a variety of looks, oscillating between winger, center forward and a number 10 role should the shape need to shift a bit in the wake of the Egyptian’s departure.
A Midfield Bobby
Rumors suggest that Bobby will be offered a contract extension as he is seen as a central figure to what goes on at Anfield. His contract also expires at the end of next season, but it’s unlikely the extension goes beyond three years. In any case, I think Bobby sticks around and becomes more than just a false nine and center forward.
Firmino boasts that same type of versatility we talk about when we think of Sadio and has played midfield roles as well as a number 10 in the past. His defensive prowess is on par with any midfielder and with Liverpool likely to be in need of midfield reinforcements in the future, it’s possible Klopp shifts Bobby into becoming more of a number 8. At present, he’s one of the best tactical defenders on the team and his work rate and passing have helped make the Liverpool attack tick at times.
With Firmino available to play multiple roles like Mane, the pair of them make maintaining depth while ensuring space for youth development a reality. That’s something Klopp will want to prioritize in his final seasons as he prepares to usher the club into a new era after his departure. With players like Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Kaide Gordon already starting to break through, Klopp will want experienced veterans who can provide a range of options and experience to ensure those players get their chance to come through the ranks under the wings of capable leaders.
Jota, Diaz and the Plan
The latest two signings for the Liverpool attack, Jota and Diaz are the pieces Klopp or any sensible manager will look to build around in the wake of Mo Salah leaving. Jota’s finishing and aerial ability make him an ideal candidate for a center-forward role.
Diaz gives Liverpool the pace and creative ability similar to Mane down that left-hand side, a role I would fully expect him to feature in regularly over the next few seasons. Given how comfortable he looks in that position and how well he’s playing with his teammates already, it simply doesn’t make sense to play him anywhere else at the moment.
If Salah leaves, I expect that a replacement will be signed or as early as next season, Harvey Elliott will flourish in that right-sided role rather than midfield. The latter seems a bit of a long shot if Salah leaves this summer as it’ll heap inordinate amounts of pressure on the youngster. But if Salah stays and mentors Elliott to some extent, that may be different altogether.
If Klopp’s plans for Elliott in midfield prove to be permanent, there is no getting around the need for a significant signing should Mo Salah leave. Who that is and what they’ll bring to the table will be the source of most of the rumors you hear surrounding Liverpool over the next four months.
Taki and Divock Futures Look Elsewhere
That just leaves the squad players of Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino. Given Origi’s proven finishing ability, understanding of Klopp’s culture, reasonable salary, and comfort in his Anfield surroundings, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Origi stuck around another year, but that seems increasingly unlikely. Because of the age, he joined Liverpool, it’s easy to forget that Divock is 26-years old and still in his prime physically, but it’s not something that is lost on other clubs.
His contract expires at the end of the season and the likes of AC Milan and Newcastle are sniffing around a free transfer. It’s been reported that his deal would have automatically extended had he reached a certain number of Premier League starts, but that seems unlikely at this stage barring a catastrophic injury crisis. It’s been a wild ride for Origi and in some ways, it’s sad to see him go. He’s a legend for the massive goals he’s scored and the character he brought to the team, but pastures anew and regular playing time await elsewhere and it’s time his career enters its next phase.
This leaves the Reds with some work to do recruiting another attacker or nurturing along with the next prospect.
Takumi Minamino has created a role for himself in this squad, proving more dependable this season than in his first two campaigns in England. He led the team in goals during the triumphant League Cup run and has 9 across all competitions for the season. It’s something that will likely earn him a move to somewhere he can play more regularly if Liverpool can get someone to meet their valuation of the player.
His play has not fit as neatly into Liverpool’s attack as everyone hoped when he joined from Red Bull Salzburg in January of 2020 and the most logical thing for his career trajectory, given that he’s 27, is to seek out regular game time. The club can turn a slight profit on a player that was a low risk at the time of purchase and has provided some positive moments, but ultimately clear space for a young talent to come through or a new signing to fill gaps in ways the likes of Minamino and Origi never could.
The evolution of the front three has already started before our very eyes. Depth, smart signings, and proper tactics have us well poised for this campaign and many to come. The future is very bright, but don’t get caught missing the present! Up the Reds!