It was Watford for Liverpool on Saturday just as it was on the August afternoon in 2017 when Jurgen Klopp’s side really began to take shape.
It was Mohamed Salah’s debut and he scored the first of his 153 goals for Liverpool. Sadio Mane, who had adopted a new position on the left after the Egyptian’s signing, also struck: it was goal 14 of 111 for a player whose debut season had been spent on the right. Roberto Firmino was on target, too: his arrival predated Klopp’s, let alone Mane and Salah’s, and it was goal 24 of 96 for him.
It was the first time the classic Klopp forward trio played together. It was far from the last time they all scored but it was fitting: from the start, they looked a deadly combination.
Between them, they now have 360 Liverpool goals. Mane and Salah have struck in Champions League finals, while Firmino got the winner in the Club World Cup final. They have been the constants, the contemporaries born within nine months of each other and all out of contract in 2023. They have the chemistry to suggest none would have reached such heights without the other two.
Klopp has often rotated less than managers of other elite sides and some of his selection decisions have been simple. The front three were set in stone. Now he has a very different dynamic, and not merely because of uncertainty about the futures of each of his pivotal trio.
It is three from five in attack or, perhaps more accurately, two from four. Salah starts; he is first among equals, so prolific that the rest compete to accompany him. But recruitment has given Liverpool potential successors and enticing options, first in Diogo Jota and then Luis Diaz.
Doubleheaders against Benfica and Manchester City in the next fortnight suggest each of the quintet will start at some stage. Jota’s propensity to go through spells of golden goalscoring form make him particularly appealing at the moment, when he has scored in his last three games.
Firmino has been reinvented to some extent: substitutions have long involved him, but only because he would run himself into the ground and then get taken off. But he has scored as a replacement away against Inter Milan and Arsenal, indicating his energy can be harnessed against tiring defences.
Mane has displayed his own versatility, taking on the Firmino role in some matches. It is a way of ensuring he can play with Diaz and Salah. If no one plays as an inverted forward quite as much as the Brazilian, it was notable that the Senegalese dropped deeper when he occupied the central position. Jota can seem to have an individual interpretation of either the berth on the left or in the middle, darting around with elusive irrepressibility wherever he is supposedly stationed.
As most of Liverpool’s defining games this season occurred before Diaz’s arrival, Klopp has not been forced into decisions when everyone was fit and firing. The old firm started against Chelsea in September and away against Atletico Madrid. Jota displaced Firmino for October’s draw with City. Mane took a rare turn on the bench for the 5-0 win over Manchester United. Firmino’s injuries then meant Klopp was only picking three from three before the Colombian came.
So far, Diaz has been a substitute for Champions League games. Jota was a replacement in the Carabao Cup final, but it was his return after injury, while the sidelined Firmino missed the game. Salah, who had taken a knock, was only a replacement for the victory at Arsenal. There has been an easy explanation when each has sat out a major match. There has been no definitive sense that an era has ended, that one of the next generation has completely supplanted one of the established order.
The more difficult decisions await for Klopp and if he can select whichever he feels suit a particular fixture, a superb communicator may still have some awkward discussions with the excluded. Perhaps, given the ages and contractual situations of his classic front three, it is a transitional time but it does mean Klopp has never had such firepower to turn to mid-match in games of this magnitude.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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