Starting 2017 as he ended last year, Sadio Mane has continued to be pivotal to Liverpool’s title aspirations; playing both hero and villain in the 2-2 draw at the Stadium of light – a game which saw the Senegalese International bag his 9th Premier League goal of the season before bizarrely handling the ball to gift Sunderland their second penalty and cost his side two points.
Regardless of the blunder, the winger is unlikely to be criticised harshly, a greater concern being the month to come with Mane unavailable whilst representing his nation during the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Gabon. It is possible that Liverpool’s current top scorer will miss seven matches, including a two-legged League Cup semi-final against Southampton and crucial league ties with Manchester United and Chelsea. Anyone associated with the club will be anxiously following his progress hoping that he returns unscathed – a league tie against top-four rivals Tottenham awaits only six days after the AFCON final.
Problems are compounded by the absence of Philippe Coutinho, whose earliest possible return is a trip to Old Trafford on January 15th; Jurgen Klopp may have to rebuild his prolific forward line. In recent weeks the Brazilian’s absence has been little issue due to the form of both Adam Lallana – who looks comfortable in either ‘3’ of his manager’s preferred 4-3-3 – and Georginio Wijnaldum whose brilliant header from the former’s cross secured three points against Manchester City, securing second place for Liverpool at year end.
The closest like-for-like replacement for Mane would be Divock Origi. Recently the Belgian has started more centrally in Klopp’s dynamically interchangeable attacking trident, but is more suited to playing wide than alternative option Daniel Sturridge. This is particularly important when considering the team’s reliance on rapid counter-attacks or getting around staunch defences, as more opponents look to stifle the Reds’ offensive potency. The Englishman has superb technical ability, but leaves questions over his compatibility with the club’s system. However, with each midweek cup semi-final leg coming just days before ties with Manchester United and Chelsea, squad rotation will be essential.
Dealing with the six midfield and attacking players there are various deployable setups, even when regarding both Mane and Coutinho as unavailable. On Monday Emre Can replaced injured captain Jordan Henderson, with Lallana withdrawn back into midfield. Sturridge started up top with Roberto Firmino/Mane and put in a performance that should see him retain his place. In this scenario, Mane could be replaced by Origi, so that both the English and Belgian forwards start for the first time together in the league; leaving a bench devoid of attacking options. This itself could be resolved by repositioning Lallana into the forward line and starting only one of the striker – either Origi wide with Firmino as a ‘false-nine’, or Sturridge centrally, with the Brazilian on the right.
Klopp will be depending on Henderson and James Milner returning as expected, with the latter replaced at half-time at Sunderland with a calf complaint. Should Milner return, he offers an additional midfield option, providing the manager is willing to trust Moreno at left-back. Liverpool may face a reality of having to replace two forwards and midfielders at once as Sturridge hobbled off with an ankle problem. This would create their weakest forced starting-XI of the season. Expect to see an altered side with starts for three or four young players this weekend when Plymouth visit Anfield for FA Cup 3rd round. Klopp takes cup competitions seriously, but will no doubt be wary of the irreversible damage that could be inflicted to his side’s season in upcoming weeks, should any further injuries be accrued.
As it stands, if players return as expected, the squad has enough quality and flexibility to maintain their encouraging form; boasting substitutes that would start in most Premier League sides and have succeeded when called upon up to now. For January and beyond, the manager will be scrutinised, as he has been in the past, if injuries mount. Critics will be quick to point blame at his intense counter-press for which he usually receives so much praise.
Mane will be missed, arguably more so than any other Premier League player leaving for Gabon. As top scorer and key contributor, this kind of absence would be a disaster for most sides. Liverpool have shown by scoring 48 goals that they aren’t entirely dependent on their costly summer signing. Having directly contributed – scored or assisted – 27% of league goals is an impressive return, yet not one that could be described as ‘carrying’ his team. On the red half of Merseyside, the system – the machine – as Klopp often refers to it is vital; there are enough suitable replacement parts available.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by thohry