Over the past few seasons, a big part of Liverpool’s progression has been the strength of their front three. In 2016/17 it was Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, while Mohamed Salah was added in 2017/18 and has gone on to win the golden boot in both of his Premier League seasons.
A problem for Liverpool, however, is that they’ve tended to lack strong rotation options for their front three. Last season they made the addition of Xherdan Shaqiri, giving three back-up forwards with Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, but there’s plenty of reason to think they could be dipping into the market again for another attacking player.
Daniel Sturridge only played 582 minutes in the Premier League last season, is out of contract this year and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he’s going to renew.
Divock Origi is going into the last year of his deal and, given he only played 409 Premier League minutes last season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Liverpool cash in and invest in another forward option.
There are young players Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson, who will be returning from a loan spell at Derby, but it’s hard to imagine these being relied upon next season. It feels as though a loan and the opportunity for regular minutes could be best for Woodburn, but Wilson is a more interesting case.
On the surface he seems to have had an impressive season at Derby, but his underlying numbers aren’t huge. He heavily out-performed his expected figures, scoring 0.4 goals p90 from 0.24 xG p90, while his xA of 0.11 p90 doesn’t stand out.
His xG p90 was the 8th highest for wingers 23-years-old and younger in the Championship, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t scream for him to be given a first team chance either.
It might be wise to sell Wilson while his stock his high and re-invest that money into someone else.
Selling Danny Ings on a permanent deal to Southampton, plus potentially selling Origi, Wilson and even Adam Lallana should give Liverpool a nice amount of money to replenish their front line, without breaking into their actual budget.
On top of this, @GraceOnFootball raised an interesting point on Twitter the other day with the following thread.
I can tell I'm going to start to get irritated with the "we must absolutely never sell any of the front 3 ever" takes.— Grace Robertson🧜♀️⚧♀️ (@GraceOnFootball) May 19, 2019
I’m not sure how to embed the full thread, so to quickly paraphrase: she talked about how Mane and Firmino are both soon-to-be 28-years-old, while Salah will be 27-years-old this summer. Liverpool basically have a choice between extending their contracts into their 30’s with high wages and declining value, or cashing in during the next 18 months and re-investing in younger options.
Unless a huge offer comes in this summer, which may not be too unrealistic with Real Madrid looking to rebuild and possibly add some peak age talent, I’d say Liverpool should keep them for next season, then maybe look to move on one next summer, particularly if they bring in a younger option or two this summer.
Given Salah is slightly younger and Liverpool have Shaqiri as back-up on the right, I’ll only be looking at options for the left-wing and centre forward positions, rather than the entire front three. I’m also mostly looking at young options who can be rotation for a couple of seasons before stepping up into the first team.
Also, I initially decided to use the tag Window Shopping to separate transfer pieces from other pieces, but given I only seem to write transfer pieces the tag is starting to feel incredibly dumb and redundant. However, since I’ve used it on other pieces I feel as though I have to keep using it just to maintain some kind of consistency. I’m debating writing a non-transfer piece just so I have don’t have to see those two words in the title for a change.
Left-Wing: Sadio Mane Back-Up
Sharing the golden boot with Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mane had a hugely productive season in 2018/19. He did over-perform on his xG, but he still had the 8th highest total xG in the Premier League last season.
Looking at his p90 numbers, only Origi (from a tiny number of minutes) and Salah had a higher xG p90 and more dribbles p90 for Liverpool in the league, while only Salah had more touches in the box p90.
His xA numbers aren’t as strong at 0.12 p90, but with Firmino, Salah and the two full-backs in the side, this is likely a result of his role rather than ability. In 2017/18 his xA was 0.2 p90, only marginally behind Salah’s 0.22 p90 which was the highest for Liverpool.
Breaking this down, if Liverpool wanted someone similar to Mane, they’d want to prioritize goal scoring over creativity, having someone who can get into good goal scoring positions and also dribble with the ball. So, let’s take a look at who stands out as interesting.
Diogo Jota – 22 – Wolves
I mentioned Jota as a potential target for Arsenal, but I think he’d be a better fit for Liverpool, particularly in the Mane role. Admittedly, I am a Wolves fan and there is some bias, but that shouldn’t detract from Jota’s strengths.
Looking at wide players 23-years-old and younger in the Premier League last season, Jota had the 4th highest xG p90 with 0.31. The only players ahead of him were Harvey Barnes (who may also be worth keeping an eye on if he can do replicate his numbers across a full Premier League season), Anthony Martial and Richarlison.
I suppose the caveat of this is that Jota’s better form came when playing centrally, but his xG p90 was still the 6th highest for all players 23-years-old and under, with Gabriel Jesus and Marcus Rashford being added to the names above him.
It’s also worth pointing out that Jota had a slow start to the season as he suffered from a couple of small injuries. Looking at his recent form, in the last three months, for players with over 250 minutes, Jota had the 3rd highest xG p90 for players 23-years-old and younger with 0.41 p90.
Outside of goalscoring, his xA was 0.16 p90, marginally higher than Mane, he attempted ~2 more dribbles p90 with a similar success rate.
He doesn’t put up as strong numbers when it comes to touches in the box, passes into the box or deep completions, but team strength and style likely plays a large part in this.
Jota is also a player who seems to thrive in transitions, which is a nice fit considering Liverpool had the 2nd most counter attacks in the Premier League last season. He can drive into space well, while also having the ability to keep the ball in tight spaces.
Something that I don’t see mentioned about him is how well he seems to use his body to keep the ball under pressure, often against players bigger than him. It’s quite often you see him put his body between the ball and the defender, either shrugging the defender off or winning a free-kick in the process.
The two clips below against Arsenal show he can drive into space during transitions, with the first clip ending with Jonny getting fouled (and Ruben Neves scoring the resulting free-kick) and the second clip being his goal.
It’s not the best example of his strength in transitions, with what looks like a 3v2 fizzling out with a Ruben Neves long shot, but the way he holds off Fabian Schar is a good example of how he uses his body.
Like Mane, he shines as being two footed, as noted by @jair1970 in his piece on pass footedness in the Premier League, which should come as no surprise given some of the goals he’s scored with his left foot this season.
Further supporting Jota’s case is @FinerMargins’ player similarity tool, which shows Jota as having 85% similarity to Mane this season, the 7th highest score for those 23-years-old and younger in Europe’s top five leagues.
I think Jota would be a great option on the left for Liverpool, however, it’s questionable how likely a deal being done is. Wolves aren’t in a position where they need to sell and could ask for a huge fee, while it’s questionable whether Jota would want to leave just yet. He may view it better for his development and career to stay and have another year as a key player at Wolves, rather than leave to play a small role at a top club.
Leon Bailey – 21 – Bayer Leverkusen
Another player I mentioned in another piece, Leon Bailey was linked with most top Premier League clubs, before going quiet for a period and then coming back on the scene as Leverkusen made a late charge into the top four.
I mentioned Bailey and now former Leverkusen player Julian Brandt as options for Liverpool back in January 2018. Brandt has now moved to Dortmund, but Bailey is still an option.
During his entire time in the Bundesliga, Bailey has managed an xG of 0.24 p90 and an xA of 0.26 p90. He’s still only 21-years-old but has just under 4500 minutes of Bundesliga football, as well as ~4200 in the Belgian League (at least as far back as this data goes).
He doesn’t seem as similar in play style to Mane as Jota does, but having a different type of player can be beneficial. Someone similar to Mane also has its benefits, it’s not as though Liverpool need a Mane clone.
Like Jota, the main argument against Bailey seems to be the money and Leverkusen’s reluctance to sell. With Leverkusen losing Brandt and possibly losing Kai Havertz next summer, you’d imagine they’d want to keep hold of Bailey. Not to mention, Bailey may view being a starter at Leverkusen more beneficial to him than being a squad player at Liverpool for the time being.
Hirving Lozano – 23 – PSV or Steven Bergwijn – 21 – PSV
I mentioned these in relation to Arsenal, so I won’t say a lot, but they’re both relevant here too.
They both put up great numbers for PSV, Lozano had an xG of 0.47 p90 and an xA of 0.31 p90, while Bergwijn had an xA of 0.36 p90 and an xA of 0.25 p90.
Lozano is slightly older, turning 24-years-old in the summer, while Bergwijn will turn 22-years-old in autumn, making him seem the more tempting option for the long-term – particularly as Lozano is reportedly close to a move to Napoli already.
Either of these would be a great addition for Liverpool and, coming from a smaller league, may be more open to being a rotation player for a season or two before stepping into the first team.
They still wouldn’t come cheap, but would like offer more value than the names mentioned so far.
Dani Olmo – 21 – Dinamo Zagreb
Yes, it’s another name I mentioned in relation to Arsenal (and even Wolves), but it could be another player worth looking at.
He has strong xG and xA numbers, strong dribbling numbers and can play on either wing or as an attacking #8. He’d offer more value than the other names mentioned so far, while possibly being happier to rotate than some of the other names. However, there was a story that if he leaves Zagreb he’ll prioritize playing time.
In his 4806 Croatian league minutes he’s averaged an xG of 0.26 p90 and an xA of 0.22 p90 as well as 8.78 dribbles p90.
He’s a player that has been linked with Liverpool and would definitely be a good addition to the squad, particularly if it’s for ~£15m.
There are quite a few talented young wingers out there for Liverpool to be looking at. The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of players out there, it’s either the value or the reluctance of the player to be a rotation option.
Jota is my personal favourite pick when it comes to the mixture of age, numbers and style, but seems a bad pick when it comes to value and availability.
With that in mind, Olmo or Bergwijn would be my next two favourite options. They’re both young with strong numbers in smaller leagues, Liverpool can take the risk on them without having to worry about immediate impact, but instead get them ready to become a first team player in the next two years or so.
Centre Forward: Roberto Firmino Back-Up
If the search for a back-up winger wasn’t great, the search for a Firmino back-up will probably be terrible. With his efforts off the ball and unselfish play, it seems hard to look for a replacement for the Brazilian forward.
Using the player similarity tool from @FinerMargins again, the players most similar to Firmino tend to be midfielders. However, you could argue Liverpool could look at attacking midfielders and use them as a forward, like what happened with Firmino.
You could also argue Liverpool don’t need a Firmino clone and having a striker who offers something different could be useful to them – provided they still fit in the system, of course.
Looking at some of his numbers, the main defensive numbers where Firmino seems to impress are successful defensive actions p90 and possession adjusted interceptions p90. In attack he has a fair xA p90, strong numbers for passes into the penalty area and the 2nd most deep completed passes p90 for forwards in Europe’s top five leagues.
I’ll be trying to look for players that also do well in these areas, looking at forwards while possibly even midfielders, to see if there is a young player who could make the same transition as Firmino.
Joelinton – 22 – Hoffenheim
It feels a lazy suggestion given it’s another Brazilian from Hoffenheim, but there are some similarities outside of that.
Joelinton has the 3rd most succesful defensive actions for forwards in the top five leagues aged 23-years-old and younger in 2018/19 and the 6th most possession adjusted interceptions p90.
His xG of 0.3 p90 was slightly behind Firmino’s 0.38 p90, while their xA was near identical. Joelinton attempted more dribbles, albeit with a worse success rate, and took slightly less touches in the box, but looks as though he could be a promising choice.
His passes into the penalty area and deep completions aren’t as strong, but Liverpool did make more deep completions (11.96 vs 14.55 p90) than Hoffenheim last season, which could have an effect.
Being a bit taller and broader, Joelinton also seems to offer a bit more physicality than Firmino, which can be seen in him winning 34.3% of his aerial duels, compared to Firmino’s 24.56%.
Considering his TransferMarkt value of £31.5m, you wouldn’t expect him to come cheap, but, considering Hoffenheim missed out on European football, there could be a good chance for a deal to be done.
Two younger options who have fairly strong numbers, both defensively and in attack, are 19-year-old Rafael Leao from Lille and 20-year-old Matheus Cunha from RB Leipzig.
The caveat is that both players didn’t play a significant number of minutes in 2018/19. They could be options worth tracking in the long-term, but it’s probably too soon to say they should be making a move for either of them. The negative to this is if they go and have a huge breakout season in 2019/20 their price could shoot up.
19-year-old midfielder Kai Havertz could be an option, with him having the highest similarity score to Firmino for players 23-years-old and younger on the player similarity tool by @FinerMargins. Apparently he won’t leave Leverkusen this summer, Bayern are also interested in him and he’d cost a premium fee, but he would be an incredibly signing.
Playing 3040 Bundesliga minutes he managed an xG of 0.37 p90, although his xA of 0.09 p90 isn’t great. His defensive numbers aren’t great to compare, given Havertz wasn’t playing up front, but he manages slightly less defensive actions p90 and slightly more possession adjusted interceptions p90.
Havertz falls short when it comes to deep completions and passes into the penalty area, but, like Hoffenheim, Leverkusen played less deep completions than Liverpool last season which can offer some kind of explanation.
If Liverpool didn’t want a player like Firmino then there’s options like Timo Werner who’s entering the last year of his deal, but, like with the options for Mane, it’s questionable if he’d be open to being a squad player when Bayern are also interested in him and are more in need of a young attacker than Liverpool.
Other young options could include 21-year-old Jean-Philippe Mateta who had a strong first season at Mainz, 18-year-old Erling Haland’s incredible numbers from Norway seem to have followed him to Austria with Salzburg while 22-year-old Sam Lammers had some impressive numbers playing on loan at Herenveen from PSV this season.
After having a quick look, finding a good Firmino replacement was difficult. Not only is it hard to find forwards with good defensive numbers as well as being productive and creative in attack, it feels as though Liverpool’s system plays a big part in why Firmino has the numbers that he does. There’s likely players out there capable of replicating what Firmino does, but they’re hard to find as they’re not in a team that has them doing it.
To compare with Mane above, there’s a lot less teams out there playing with a forward like FIrmino than there are playing with goalscoring wingers.
Liverpool still have a lot time to act, but the end of their front three’s peak years is on the horizon. Referring back to what @GraceOnFootball said, you’d imagine it needs to be dealt with in the next 18 months or so, but it is quite a tough position for the club.
In David Ornstein’s look at the top six going into the transfer window, he says Liverpool are set for a quiet summer, only bringing in a couple of players and likely under ~£15m. He also says Liverpool would rather keep Origi even if he doesn’t sign a new deal, rather than selling for a cut price and signing someone new.
To go off on a slight tangent, this is somewhat disappointing. Liverpool had a great season (that could get even better with the Champions League final) and don’t need to change anything, but there are areas where it feels as though an extra player or two may be useful.
If Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno are set to leave, back-up full-backs would be a good addition, while it’d be nice to see Liverpool be proactive in the window and add a couple of younger players to their attack to be a step ahead when it comes time to sell one of their front three.
As I’ve found and mentioned throughout this piece, this isn’t easy. With such a strong front three, attackers know they won’t be first choice at Liverpool, so may view it as more beneficial to stay where they are and play regularly.
However, even if they just kept hold of Origi and added someone like Dani Olmo for ~£15m they’d have a back up for each of the front three.
If they don’t add an attacker, and assuming Sturridge and Lallana leave, they’re only left with Shaqiri and Origi as their back-up options, as well as youngsters Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson – who don’t seem likely to make the step up just yet and may be better served getting regular minutes elsewhere.
There are two arguments to counter this situation.
Firstly, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can play wide and given Liverpool have Fabinho, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum who can all play centrally, it’s hard to imagine the squad being stretched too far in midfield and attack.
Secondly, Liverpool finished on 97 points and reached a Champions League final (which they can still win) with their current squad and the only players who look like they might leave are Sturridge and Lallana – who only played a combined ~1100 minutes in the league last season. This makes it seem as though they don’t need cover.
However, my thought process is that Liverpool have put together a great, mostly peak age squad (as can be seen in the graphic from @Worville below) that doesn’t need big change or even a big signing, it just feels like it’d be useful for them to add a couple of younger players here and there to bring through and allow them to be prepared when a big player does reach the end of their peak and/or leaves.
Liverpool's age profile this season barely any players over the so-called peak years pic.twitter.com/2tPbz9LzO8— Tom (@Worville) April 12, 2019
I should reiterate this isn’t an immediate concern for Liverpool, but it would be nice to see them actively try and build on what they’ve accomplished so far by adding younger prospects to their current peak age talent, particularly in attack. However, it’s also worth noting that Liverpool’s recruitment hasn’t put a foot wrong in recent seasons and they most likely are fully prepared for when it comes time to replace one of the front three.