Who will take their chance at Anfield?
With 7 games remaining for Liverpool to cement their place in the Champions League for next season, the race to finish in the top 4 is certainly gaining momentum and heating up.
However, their hopes this morning took a serious blow when Jurgen Klopp confirmed that winger Sadio Mané will miss the entire run-in after sustaining a knee injury in the 3-1 Merseyside derby win over Everton.
The winger will need surgery before returning at the beginning of next season.
It’s a huge blow for Liverpool. As a fan, it’s a deep worry, with a top 4 finish something so difficult to achieve, it very much could be the different between the Champions League and Europa League next season.
And, if it wasn’t enough that the Reds are going to be without their top scorer for the remainder of the season, other key men, such as Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana, are also set to be missing for the vast majority of the games remaining.
It leaves Liverpool looking rather thin. They have a lack of squad depth as it is, but now they’re really down to the bare bones of established starting XI players. On Wednesday night, for their 2-2 draw at home to Bournemouth, Liverpool’s only dangerous attacking threat was Daniel Sturridge, and even that depends on your definition of dangerous.
Other than Daniel, the other options to bring on going forward were central midfielder Marko Grujic, and youngster Ben Woodburn. Not exactly options other managers envy Jurgen Klopp for having. Nothing against those lads, but for someone sat in the Kop on Wednesday, the options didn’t excite me.
So, how can Liverpool ensure they finish in the top 4 at the end of this season? They shouldn’t give up all hope just yet. On paper they have the simplest run-in of all of the top 6, with other teams still having to play each other. I’m certain that Liverpool will drop more points in this final few games, but so will other teams.
They have to find a way to keep the attacking flair they’ve been praised for this season still alive without Mané. Philippe Coutinho seems to be getting back to his best, with goals against Everton and Bournemouth in the last 7 days, but his partner in crime Roberto Firmino was poor in the Bournemouth game in particular.
Let’s assume Coutinho and Firmino both manage to keep themselves fit, they have goals in them and creativity to their play, both will score and create goals before the season ends. However, now is the time someone else at Liverpool needs to stand up and be counted.
One of the names I’ve previously mentioned in this post needs to take advantage of this situation. We’ve seen it many times down the years at Manchester United. An unknown player bursts onto the scene when they need him most and makes a name for himself in the best of situations. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both did it in their first appearances last season, and, looking back further than that, the forgotten Fedrico Macheda scored a vital goal in 2009 vs Aston Villa at Old Trafford to help send the Premier League title United’s way that season.
The Three Potential Saviours
There are three potential heirs to the Mané throne at Anfield. Three players in the squad right now that really could become influential in the final stages of this season. The first is Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge has just been wasted talent moping about since Luis Suarez left Liverpool, injuries have got the better of him over the last few years and I don’t think he has a great relationship with Jurgen Klopp. In the summer, I think Daniel Sturridge will leave Liverpool. In face, there’s a possibility that he may have even already played his final game for the club, which probably sounds like a stupid thing to say after listing him as someone who could actually save Liverpool’s top 4 title challenge this season.
I list him here because we all know he has the talent to come into the side and be world-class. And I really don’t say that lightly. It might be difficult to remember now, but Sturridge’s finishing was impeccable in the 2013/14 season. He scored 21 goals in the league that campaign, including fantastic goals against Everton and Stoke City at Anfield. He and Suarez really were an incredible partnership and it’s clear he’s suffered from the Uruguayan leaving.
If Sturridge can keep himself fit, I back him to make at least one or two more appearances this season, what he does with that chance, is down to him. You can see it in himself that he knows he is capable of being a top player, his performances in the past prove it, on his day, he has an edge to him that the rest of Liverpool’s attacking options do not have. He has the ability to produce a wonderful moment of individual brilliance and score out of nothing.
The man is a top talent.
Klopp’s second option is another centre-forward who’s had a lot more game time than Sturridge this season- Divock Origi. I honestly think that the Belgian is going to be a top player, IF he keeps getting game time, and this is his chance. The other night against Bournemouth he was very good, strong on the ball holding it up, he has the ability to turn a player with his pace, and he knows where to go to get goals.
The issue is right now is that he can sometimes disappear in games, which is fine in some games and fine for a young player, he’s not a finished article yet, but he needs to get more involved sometimes. This opportunity will allow him to get right into the firing line and give Jurgen Klopp a real selection problem at the beginning of next season when Mané is fit again.
For a man who many fans claim is having a ‘poor season’, he has now scored 10 goals from 16 starts, with 4 assists on top of that. A decent return for a 21 year old. Marcus Rashford of Manchester United has just 7 goals from 22 starts, and hasn’t scored in the Premier League since United’s 4-1 win at home to Leicester all the way back in September.
There are, however, disadvantages to Origi playing. Small ones, but ones that for the sake of balance must be discussed. As number 9-style striker, Origi much prefers to play down the middle, at the top of the front attacking 3 in the team. Doing this, however, splits up the partnership of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, who are much more effective when playing close together. For a lot of the season, Firmino has taken up the ‘false 9’ role, while Coutinho has played on the left-hand side. It’s clear that the creativity of both players suffer when they cannot work as closely together on the pitch.
This is of course, something they need to sort in order to both become better players. Firmino’s form suffered when Coutinho was out with his ankle injury from November-January, but Bobby cannot let the involvement of Coutinho become an overwhelming factor on his own performances, because if he does, he’ll struggle if Phil is snapped up by Barcelona this summer.
For now though, the Brazilian tag-team are proving to be effective partners on the field, when Firmino plays central and Coutinho plays on the left. If Origi is the man to fill in for Mané, pushing Firmino out to the right, does that have an effect on the form of both Brazilian playmakers? Firmino was poor against Bournemouth on Wednesday, and he did indeed start on the right-hand side.
Right now, it’s Origi who’s becoming the man Klopp looks to bring into the side in situations like this. I feel almost certain that he will start away at Stoke tomorrow, and he needs another goal to keep the ball rolling and stay in the starting team, but he also needs to do something special and prove he can be the difference between 1 point, and all 3, in order to really advertise himself as a top-class striker in the games left remaining this season.
Could young Ben be the answer?
Another player who must be relishing this opportunity is the young Ben Woodburn. I said before that his potential involvement on Wednesday evening didn’t ‘excite’ me, which is precisely why he SHOULD be rubbing his hands at such a big chance. He’s only 17, yet he has such a big chance here to really show Jurgen Klopp what he can do. He does it on a regular basis for the under-23’s, now he needs to transfer that talent to the first team.
If you’re a young player on the edge of this squad, looking in, this is exactly what you want. You don’t want to be given opportunities in ‘nothing games’, like last year when Klopp played a lot of kids in order to rest players for Europa League games. Those types of games only get you so far. If you want a real chance to make a name for yourself, you want to be handed opportunities in games that truly matter. Woodburn has gathered himself a fair bit of experience this season, but he doesn’t want to be used on the peripheries of the squad forever, he’ll be wanting a first-team place next season.
Every Liverpool player without a nailed-down starting place need to be thinking about that at the moment. Because these players can get more starts next season if Liverpool make it into the Champions League, when more rotation is needed. But, particularly in Ben Woodburn’s situation, if I was him, I would be rubbing my hands right now thinking about what a massive chance there is on the cards for me to progress my career and further impress the manager. It’s not unheard of for young players to take the league by storm, and the door is open for Woodburn to become that special player who does something incredible and propels Liverpool towards a top 4 finish.
The reality is that Liverpool are going to find it tough to finish in the top 4 now. They are potentially missing three key players until the end of the season and defensively they aren’t really improving. It will take something special for them to push forward and scrape 4th, but they are capable of doing so if one member of the squad can just take the chance they are about to have handed to them in Mané’s absence.
Sturridge, Origi, Woodburn, this is the time to seize an opportunity and capitalise on the poor fortune of Sadio Mané. Who will be the player to step up for Jurgen Klopp?
By Ben Kelly – @benkelly_10