Liverpool are in the midst of a hectic January fixture schedule and Jurgen Klopp will have to manage the rotation of his squad carefully if they’re to progress on all fronts.
The club are in the semi-finals of the League Cup, and will be expected to progress to a third final appearance since the German manager joined the club when they face Southampton, beginning with the first leg at St Mary’s Stadium tonight.
They also face what is potentially the biggest of banana skins in the FA Cup when they travel to Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park stadium to replay their Third Round tie next Wednesday. In January they come up against a resurgent Manchester United and table-toppers Chelsea — two games which could define their league season.
Unfortunately for the Reds, they’ll have to do all of this without the unique attacking threat of Sadio Mane, who has departed Merseyside to join up with Senegal for the African Cup of Nations in Gabon.
Liverpool have no one else like Mane on their books, and his style of play has given Klopp’s side a different dimension — so much so that he changed the team’s shape at the start of the season to get the most from him.
The £34 million signing from Southampton settled quicker than expected on the right flank, and provided the team with their most direct attacking outlet since Luis Suarez left the club.
Mane is their pace, their unpredictable directness, and has regularly been the most attack-minded player in the team, coming inside from his wide position to play as a central forward.
He has 9 goals and 7 assists from his 21 appearances in all competitions, and has only missed one league game so far this season. He’s a vital part of Klopp’s counter-pressing team, transferring the quickness he shows in attack to consistent pestering of opposition players as he defends from the front.
He’s been the ideal foil to the playmaking and sharpshooting skills of Philippe Coutinho on the other flank, and has allowed Roberto Firmino to thrive in a raumdeuter role in the centre.
Liverpool will miss him greatly, and if they’re to cope without him they’ll have to make up for his absence in other ways seeing as there is no like for like replacement.
Luckily, Klopp does have another quality attacking talent in reserve in the shape of Daniel Sturridge. The English striker is a different type of player to Mane, but he’s at a similar level when it comes to quality.
Sturridge could come into the side as the central forward and replace Mane’s unpredictability in a different way. His quick thinking with the ball at his feet can lead to shots on goal which catch an opposition defence off guard. His goal in the Europa League final last year springs to mind, when he bent a well-hit shot with the outside of his trusty left boot leaving the keeper sprawling helplessly. His recent strike which led to the winning goal against Everton is another example, and was dangerous because of the timing of the shot even though it wasn’t hit particularly cleanly.
His range of finishing and ability to create space for a shot can bring to mind the Liverpool version of Fernando Torres. Sturridge also retains some pace and, more importantly, a burst of acceleration in the first few strides despite numerous muscle injuries.
The return of Philippe Coutinho is timely. If the team were without both Mane and Coutinho then a change in shape might have been needed to accommodate the strengths of the remaining available players. As it is Coutinho can return to his role on the left, and his tactically savvy compatriot Roberto Firmino could slot in on the right.
Firmino has been the player who best fits the tactical plan of attack. Arriving at the club from the Bundesliga — the home of gegenpressing — helped, and he’d already caught Klopp’s eye when both plied their trade in Germany.
This season the Brazilian has been most effective through the centre but he’s also done a job on the left, and could do a similar one on the right. He’ll replace Mane’s defensive work down that flank, supporting the ever-present Nathaniel Clyne, and will also cause problems for opposition defenders in attack.
Even if he doesn’t produce the numbers in terms of goal contributions from this position, Firmino will create space for the likes of Sturridge, Coutinho, Lallana and Wijnaldum.
Mane’s absence could also provide fleeting chances for youth players such as Sheyi Ojo, Ben Woodburn, and Harry Wilson. The latter is the most impressive player in the club’s under-23 side, which he occasionally captains, but is yet to make his first team debut.
Ojo would be the closest the club have to Mane in the youth ranks, but he’s not ready for first team starts in big games yet. All three of them could get chances from the bench, especially in the event that the team have a comfortable lead in a game.
Whichever route he decides to take, it’s a big month for Klopp, and the team selection decisions he makes during it are some of the biggest he’ll have had to make in his Liverpool career so far. If, by the time of their game at home to Spurs on February 11th, Liverpool are in both cups and still within five points of the top of the league, then it will be a job well done.
If they miss out on the League Cup final and lose ground on the league leaders, then questions will be asked as to whether more could have been done in the transfer market to cover for Mane’s trip to Africa.