Messi, Suárez, Neymar; Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez; Messi, Pedro, Villa; Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema. In the pantheon of the best front threes of modern times, Liverpool’s Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané have more to achieve before they join that elite, but they also represent what remains the finest attack in European football. With the perfect combination of pace, power, technique, lethal finishing and a mutual understanding, Salah, Firmino and Mané are proving irresistible when they at their very best. They have an incredible 204 goals between them since the start of the 2017/18 season, and are leading Liverpool towards their first league title in 30 years.
Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané
Firmino is often considered the link between Salah and Mané, and therefore the most creative of Liverpool’s fine front three. He has become an unexpectedly influential player since Klopp’s appointment – he arrived during the summer Raheem Sterling left for rivals Manchester City – largely because he is perhaps the only individual in their squad capable of truly excelling as a false number nine, and he has since adapted as Liverpool have as a team.
Throughout 2017/18, when Liverpool’s development began to accelerate to the point of them becoming European champions, and likely winners of their first Premier League title, the Brazilian’s defensive contributions were significant in them dominating moments of transition. He adopted advanced positions to win the ball back closer to the opponents’ goal, and was the second most prolific tackler in Klopp’s squad.
During the following season their approach became more possession-based – which it remains – contributing to Firmino adopting more withdrawn positions during build-ups and, in contrast to when he offered significantly more than Mané and Salah while defending, his two teammates’ defensive output increasing at the expense of his own. That their full-backs were also encouraged to advance as far forward as they do also led to his reduced defensive responsibility, and therefore the number of regains made.
His movements throughout 2019/20 have involved him drifting further away from opposing single or double pivots (above); where he previously invited Salah and Mané to diagonally run blindside of their opposing marker, Firmino’s increasingly deep positioning encourages them to move inside at an earlier stage of an attack, and to remain there for longer. Involved in that is the fact that Liverpool are typically building attacks for lengthier periods, and maintaining a three-on-three within midfield.
Their two wider midfielders, who also move to cover their advancing full-backs, often attack through the inside channels or wider areas as Firmino’s movements give them the freedom to do – similarly to his ability to break lines into runners around him, and to support wider attacks. His positioning away from opposing central defenders is often the key to releasing Mané and Salah in behind, following their movements inside from wider areas; his willingness to press, duel and recover possession are again influential when he is in those deeper positions, not least when he represents the first or second individual in Liverpool’s intense press.
Salah’s role within Liverpool’s front three has also become increasingly flexible. Where in 2017/18, his first season at Anfield, he was most commonly used as a wrong-footed wide forward who received possession wide on the right wing and attacked inside his opposing full-back or to combine with runners, he has since been playing more centrally.
The Egyptian’s change of pace, ability to subtly cut inside opponents, and accurate finishing ability made him prolific from his previous position. The impressive development of Trent Alexander-Arnold has led to Salah taking further different roles amid Liverpool’s desire to build with lengthier periods of possession, often from the right.
His combinations from more central positions – often with Firmino and Mané, and since then the right-sided midfielder of Liverpool’s preferred three (above) – remain consistent. Alexander-Arnold is also overlapping and supporting more conservatively than he once was, as a consequence, without sacrificing his ability to deliver accurate crosses.
Salah also continues to threaten from central positions, where he is often supported by Mané. Should Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta establish themselves as they are expected to do, potentially as that right-sided midfielder, Salah may yet more consistently offer further, and more central, movements while they advance.
Mané’s role has also changed over that period. Recruited while a transitional right winger, Salah’s arrival and the emergence of Liverpool’s adventurous full-backs has contributed to Mané’s gradual progression into an inside forward who plays from the left. If Andy Robertson is the more athletic of those two full-backs, Mané’s role is very much intertwined with his relentless overlapping runs. Both Mané and Robertson work tirelessly, tracking back towards he left with recovery runs, and also in pressing the opposition.
Robertson’s crosses tend to come from a similar position after a run from deeper territory and a combination with Mané and the left-sided central midfielder – often Georginio Wijnaldum (above). This is in contrast to Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries from the right, which have greater accuracy, control and variety, meaning that he crosses from various positions and, crucially, when isolated or underloaded, that Salah is free to move inside at an earlier stage of an attack. Robertson often requires support before delivering into the penalty area; Mané therefore holds his position on the left, and delays his runs into the middle.
Mané occasionally moves centrally to become a second number 10 alongside Firmino, but he offers more runs beyond the opposition’s defence than does the Brazilian, who prefers to withdraw and to seek possession. These bursting runs add a different dimension to Liverpool’s attacks, because no other individual breaks lines by running with the ball like Mané.
Klopp’s side had once lacked that towards the right, and that they have since improved owes partly to the greater consistency with which they were breaking through low blocks via individuals’ dribbles. Firmino’s willingness to drift to towards the left similarly invites Mané to remain central and to provide a goalscoring threat, alongside Salah. He has shown his worth in this position by again scoring regularly this season; his explosive finishes, speed of thought and sharp movements make him lethal in front of goal. Liverpool have two superb finishers playing from wide in the final third, giving them a near-permanent threat from those positions.