Liverpool’s attacking woes: The numbers that show why Liverpool MUST spend big

How did it come to this?

For all the issues the team has had this season – and there have been plenty – Liverpool cannot make excuses for their failure to put the ball in the back of the net.

Indeed, Jurgen Klopp‘s team has been ravaged by injuries to vital personnel this season, leaving a squad which surged so devastatingly to the Premier League title 12 months ago badly wounded and out of sorts.

Even now the Merseyside giants are back to playing a midfielder, Fabinho, at the heart of defence, while alongside him a loanee star, Ozan Kabak, is desperately trying to learn the tricks of the trade in the English top flight to secure a permanent switch.

It all has an impact, naturally. The fact that Liverpool have been without influential captain and leader Jordan Henderson for so long hasn’t helped matters, yet one thing has remained a constant. Liverpool’s formidable and world-renowned front three.

Or, rather, once formidable.

The breathtaking forward trident of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have remained an ever-present. Yet the goals… well, they have simply dried up. With five games to go, Liverpool’s goal tally is 55. At this point last season, they had 72.

Sadio Mane's drop-off this season has left Liverpool struggling to make the top four

Mo Salah is still finding the back of the net but key chances are still going missing

Sadio Mane (left) and Mo Salah failed to help Liverpool see out a much needed win over Newcastle, once again sparking the debate the the attacking line at Anfield has fallen off

With defence in tatters, a lack of goals was exactly the headache Jurgen Klopp did not need

With defence in tatters, a lack of goals was exactly the headache Jurgen Klopp did not need

Even Diogo Jota, who has been a revelation this season and stepped up admirably after signing from Wolves, has struggled to make a prolonged impact following his return from a troublesome knee injury.

From leading positions this season Liverpool have squandered a quite remarkable 15 points. In their last three matches they have, embarrassingly, scored only twice from 54 shots on goal. 

So, what on earth is going on? Liverpool, it must be said, are still making chances. Lots of them, and rather frequently.

The burning issue at hand is that they simply are not converting like they used to. The struggles of this season would be much less painful had the attackers who have made such a name for themselves in recent years hit the right notes. 

So, in an attempt to answer the important questions surrounding the disappearance of Liverpool’s goals when they need them most, Sportsmail first considered a rather interesting – albeit controversial – recent opinion shared by former Reds striker Michael Owen.

Speaking recently during his punditry duties with BT Sport, Owen suggested that despite Salah and Mane’s brilliance ‘they’re not natural finishers, not someone that you can hang your hat on’.

‘They’ve scored goals consistently because Liverpool have, like today, created so many chances,’ he added.

‘But they’ve been wanting, or the team have been found wanting, a lot of the season with missed chances.’

Michael Owen insisted fallen champions Liverpool can't 'hang their hat' on Salah and Mane

Michael Owen insisted fallen champions Liverpool can’t ‘hang their hat’ on Salah and Mane 

So, is Owen right? The controversial former Reds striker who did the unthinkable and moved to Old Trafford did not have his words universally well received, but the underlying tone does appear to make sense.

It’s important to establish here that Salah has 20 league goals to his name this season and is second only to Harry Kane (by one strike) in the race for the Golden Boot.

The Egyptian is a colossus in front of goal and has continued doing the business for Liverpool season upon season, but his sublime volley against Newcastle on Saturday was offset by the squandering of a clear cut one-on-one chance which would have given his side the vital second goal they craved.

This, Owen emphasised, was what he meant by the finishing instincts of the forward line. Or, rather, a lack thereof.

Salah has played more minutes than any of his attacking team-mates this season for one simple reason; Jurgen Klopp cannot afford to drop him.

Though the 28-year-old may appear to be missing more chances this season than in years gone by, it’s fair to say Liverpool would be lost without him. What is more concerning for Klopp is the fact that Jota has played over 500 league minutes fewer than both Mane and Firmino, yet has the same amount of goals as the Senegal star and two more than the Brazilian.

Jota appears to be the lifeline in the front line with his ability to offer something new, and has exposed Liverpool’s need to freshen up their formerly devastating trident after seasons of relentless dependency.

The issue, however, comes down to team work. Much has been made this season of Jota overshadowing Firmino and essentially pushing the Brazilian towards the exit door – but stats reveal that Firmino links up with Salah better than anybody else.

THE LINK-UP BETWEEN LIVERPOOL’S FRONT LINE SO FAR THIS SEASON (Opta)
Player 1 Player 2 Mins together Passes to each other Per 90 Chances created for each other Per 90 Assists for Each other
Diogo Jota Mohamed Salah 745 51 6.2 6 0.7 1
Diogo Jota Roberto Firmino 658 63 8.6 8 1.1 0
Diogo Jota Sadio Mané 648 42 5.8 8 1.1 3
Mohamed Salah Roberto Firmino 2212 228 9.3 24 1 3
Mohamed Salah Sadio Mané 2102 112 4.8 22 0.9 0
Roberto Firmino Sadio Mané 2135 175 7.4 14 0.6 3
Big questions are being asked of Roberto Firmino (left) as new boy Diogo Jota (right) continues to settle into life at Anfield after an injury-hit start to his Liverpool career

Big questions are being asked of Roberto Firmino (left) as new boy Diogo Jota (right) continues to settle into life at Anfield after an injury-hit start to his Liverpool career

Between them this season Salah and Firmino have created 24 chances for one another, as per Opta, averaging at one clear opportunity crafted per 90 minutes.

Jota, however, despite creating fewer chances overall so far, is actually responsible for 1.1 chances created each Premier League match. Interestingly, these chances are created between Jota and Mane, and Jota and Firmino.

It suggests that in the Portuguese starlet Liverpool have signed another player very much in the mould of Salah. A relentless worker who, despite not initially being seen as an out-and-out striker, has the ability to add more and more goals to his game if paired with selfless and highly intelligent attacking partners.

In this sense, both Mane and particularly Firmino have been seen to offer this kind of foil for Salah for years.

Liverpool became so potent, particularly 18 months ago, when Mane and Firmino started weighing in with plentiful goals while also doing everything in their power to help Salah succeed.

Now, this has fallen off. But it is not for a lack of trying, or general creation. In fact, Liverpool are actually providing a similar kind of output as they did last season.

Take for example the oppressive left-sided link-up of Andy Robertson and Mane. These two players have tortured opponents in years gone by, and yet this season the Scotsman has still managed to put on 16 clear chances for Mane.

That Mane has scored only eight goals in total speaks volume of the former Southampton man, who just one year ago received the vote of none other than Lionel Messi to win the Ballon d’Or.

HOW LIVERPOOL’S FRONT LINE HAVE BEEN AIDED SO FAR THIS SEASON (Opta)
Player 1 Name Player 2 Name P1 to P2 Chances Created
Andrew Robertson Sadio Mane 16
Andrew Robertson Roberto Firmino 14
Roberto Firmino Mohamed Salah 14
Trent Alexander-Arnold Sadio Mané 14
Mohamed Salah Sadio Mane 13
Sadio Mane Roberto Firmino 11
Trent Alexander-Arnold Mohamed Salah 11
Mohamed Salah Roberto Firmino 10
Sadio Mane Mohamed Salah 9
James Milner Sadio Mane 8
Trent Alexander-Arnold Roberto Firmino 8
Georginio Wijnaldum Mohamed Salah 6

It’s often the case that when attackers begin to struggle, it is the wider problem of the team as a whole.

Liverpool are seeing this issue materialise. Lack of goals are causing a nervous tension throughout the team, with the empty four stands of Anfield doing nothing to ease the players’ worries.

The lack of crowd has had a significant impact on Klopp’s men this season, with Anfield well and truly void of its ’12th man.’ 

Games are not being safety seen out, as evidenced consecutively against Leeds and Newcastle. The fans aren’t on hand to steady the ship as they have done for years yet, at the same time, Liverpool’s midfielders are very much at sea.

Taking a closer look at who is providing what this season, the Reds’ next highest scorers outside of the attacking quartet happen to be Curtis Jones and Takumi Minamino with four goals each.

Other than Liverpool's forwards, the next highest goalscorer is youngster Curtis Jones (right)

Other than Liverpool’s forwards, the next highest goalscorer is youngster Curtis Jones (right)

That is the same Curtis Jones who is just 20 and experiencing his first breakthrough season with the seniors, and the same Minamino who has been packaged out on loan to Southampton.

What Liverpool have on their plate is a case of too many players trying to do too many different roles. The midfield are providing zero additional firepower as a result, instead opting to plug holes all over the field and alleviate some of the pressure on the makeshift defence.

In turn, Liverpool’s relentless full-backs, Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, have endured their own personal drop-offs in form. It’s a vicious cycle for the reigning champions, who have been dealt these myriad problems straight off the back of a very limited pre-season campaign. 

Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are still teeing things up for the forward ranks. Between them they have put on 30 chances for Mane alone, with a collective 22 for Firmino. The latter statistic shines a rather damning light on Liverpool’s No 9, who has offered up just six league goals in 31 matches.

The only midfielders to have put regular, or semi-regular, chances on for the attackers are Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner.

Neither are well recognised as typical playmakers for the Reds, though Milner has created eight chances for Mane and Wijnaldum has crafted six opportunities for Salah.

A glaringly obvious absence of marquee summer signing Thiago Alcantara can be seen here, with the Spaniard yet to produce a single assist or goal for his new employers.

Klopp brought in Thiago (right) for magic moments but he has struggled so far this season

Klopp brought in Thiago (right) for magic moments but he has struggled so far this season

With his dancing feet and X-ray vision, Thiago was the driving force behind Bayern Munich’s Champions League win last season. He was expected to bring all this and more to Anfield, but the drastic restructuring of Liverpool’s side to combat injuries appears to have very much thrown his game off.

Thiago, like a vast number of Liverpool stars, is in desperate need of a total reset and a fresh season in which all personnel are fully fit and firing in their natural positions. 

So… what next? 

Liverpool may be facing an uphill battle to make the top four this season after recent stalemates with Leeds and Newcastle, but what does this all mean longer term?

Regardless of whether they end up playing any form of European football next season, Liverpool have learned much from the past 12 months, which will have triggered several alarm bells in the upper sanctum of the boardroom. 

Perhaps now, in a nod to the thoughts of Owen, Klopp’s side will be turning their focus to a bonafide striker. A so-called ‘out and out finisher’, whose sole specialty is putting the ball in the back of the net over and over again, without the frills or trimmings.

It’s easy to see the arguments for and against. One of the biggest obstacles would undoubtedly be price, given how much these players are considered to be worth.

Likewise, a vast portion of football fans and pundits alike will be entirely of the opinion that Salah classifies as one of these relentless scorers, given his running for the Golden Boot every season without fail.

The table below shows the comparison between Liverpool’s forward line this season and Tottenham’s Harry Kane, who currently leads the way in the scoring charts.

HOW LIVERPOOL’S FRONT FOUR COMPARE TO HARRY KANE THIS SEASON 
Premier League 2020-21 Salah Mane Firmino Jota Kane
Games Played 32 30 31 16 30
Minutes Played 2633 2436 2488 959 2635
Goals 20 8 6 8 21
Mins/Goal 132 305 415 120 125
Total Shots/90 3.6 3.1 2.6 3.7 4
Shot Conversion Rate 19.2 9.5 8.2 20.5 18
Touches in Opp Box/90 8.6 8.3 6.2 7.1 4.8
Expected Goals/90 0.6 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.6
Inside the area Harry Kane touches the ball less yet scores more, showing the art of finishing

Inside the area Harry Kane touches the ball less yet scores more, showing the art of finishing

Kane and Salah have struck up a goalscoring rivalry in recent years, although the figures do highlight how both stars differ.

Given they have now played almost exactly the same amount of minutes on the field, Kane is marginally outscoring Salah yet operates much differently inside the area.

The Englishman takes just over half the touches of Salah inside the opposition area. It suggests once inside the danger zone, Kane knows exactly how to get the ball to its intended target with ruthless efficiency.

Salah, the data indicates, takes a fractionally greater process to sculpt his openings into goals.

Additionally, Salah has three assists to his name this season whereas Kane has an admirable 13. The Spurs man looks to be getting the business done where and when it matters most, while also putting on a plate for others.

It’s the out-and-out goal-getting which Owen was hinting at, despite irking much of his former club’s fanbase in the process.

So, can Liverpool afford to bring in a player with Kane-like output and ability this summer? The man himself could be poised to finally leave Spurs, but the astronomical fee his services would warrant would almost certainly deter the Reds.

The magnificent Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe are likewise set to shatter transfer fee records when they finally leave their respective clubs in the coming months or years.

The likes of Erling Haaland are seen as 'natural goalscorers' but are valued in the hundreds of millions and wanted by all of Europe's most wealthy teams

The likes of Erling Haaland are seen as ‘natural goalscorers’ but are valued in the hundreds of millions and wanted by all of Europe’s most wealthy teams

It presents a conundrum for Liverpool. This calibre of player is undoubtedly the sort they would wish to replace Salah long term, though neither the funds are in place nor a guarantee that such a superstar could play comfortably alongside the Egyptian in Liverpool’s set-up right now.

What is clear, however, is that, ‘natural finisher’ or not, Salah remains Liverpool’s leading light. It is the ongoing situation with Mane and Firmino which must be addressed with utmost urgency.

Klopp needs firepower of some description this summer, and the Liverpool hierarchy could be set to make the next biggest mistake of their tenure if they fail to back him. 


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