Liverpool’s attacking trident of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane have scored 29 Champions League goals between them, including 14 in the Group Stages. Salah and Firmino have scored ten each and these three comprise three of the top four scorers in the competition this season – Cristiano Ronaldo is ahead with 15.
Liverpool’s front three have captured the imagination this season, not least because Mohamed Salah, the PFA Player’s Player of the Year, Fan’s Player of the Year, and FWA Player of the Year, is such an engaging character. Indeed, Salah has overcome the disappointment of his rejection by Chelsea, and Firmino the criticism he received as a perceived erroneous signing by Liverpool’s data-driven approach, to prove their critics wrong. Together with Mane, who was scooped up after a successful time at Southampton, this attacking trident has carried Liverpool to the brink of unexpected glory.
Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp press hard, defend from the front, and play a direct style of football predicated on getting the ball forward to the front three. Firmino is perhaps the most vertically dynamic of the three, pushing up to press as the tip of a triangle, while Mane and Salah fan out to close down the angled passing lanes, but also dropping back to make tackles and interceptions around the opposition’s defensive midfield zone. Both of the wide players will also fan out and back to form a slightly jagged midfield block of five, with Salah and Mane more advanced, and a central midfielder, often Emre Can or Jordan Henderson, pushing up to press the opposition defensive midfielder.
In attack, Firmino is the link player, extremely adept at receiving the ball having dropped behind his wide colleagues and turning. He then either carries the ball himself or plays diagonal balls into the wide spaces for the wingers or overlapping full-backs, or more vertically as Salah and Mane cut inside towards the opposition goal.
Firmino also regulates Liverpool’s attacking pace by recycling the ball back to the midfield if there is not a better option going forward. Liverpool like to attack at pace, especially having counter-pressed (winning the ball immediately back after losing it, to exploit the disorganised disposition of the opposition’s defence), but they are far from helter-skelter in their approach. If the option to attack is not there, Liverpool will move the ball around, and Firmino is part of this dialogue between attack and midfield that ensures Liverpool do not attack at inopportune moments.
Ahead of, or alongside, Firmino, Salah and Mane attack largely by cutting inside, with full-backs Andrew Roberton or Alberto Moreno on the left, and Trent-Alexander Arnold or Nathaniel Clyne on the right, overlapping. Tactically, this approach is clear; the difficulty exists in how to stop it. All of the front three are superb technical players, capable of exchanging quick passes at speed, controlling the ball in tight areas, and dribbling despite significant opposition pressure. The full-backs also get forward with such regularity, that a ball out into the wide space usually exists as an option, should it be required; this can then lead to a cross, especially towards the near post where the front three’s pace and movement can cause issues.
There are certainly tactics at play here: Klopp drills his sides relentlessly in pressing, while Firmino’s role is the result of careful, considered thinking both about what the team needs and what the player’s strengths are. Inside forwards cutting towards the goal while full-backs overlap is nothing new, though; what separates this Liverpool front three and makes them such an entertaining spectacle is the combination of pressing, energy, and technicality, and how well they work with the solid midfield base sitting behind them.
Whether the extraordinary seasons of Firmino, Salah, and Mane can carry them all the way to the Champions League title remains to be seen, but what is clear is that, while Real Madrid might know exactly what awaits them, that is no guarantee they will be able to do anything about it and stop Liverpool’s wonderful front three.
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