“Imagine needing a goal and bringing on Divock Origi lol”
May 4th 2019. It’s week 37 in the 2018/19 Premier League season. Seventeen minutes remain of Liverpool’s game at Newcastle and top scorer Mohamed Salah has just been stretchered off after taking a knock to the head. Cue the entrance of Belgian striker Divock Origi….and cue the cheeky Twitter post quoted above.
Thoughts of Liverpool’s back up strikers have been playing on my mind for a few weeks now, even before it emerged last week that the long-expected arrival of Timo Werner from RB Leipzig would not be happening. It’s a question that’s never too far from the minds of Liverpool fans everywhere: what would happen if something happened to Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino?
Does Jurgen Klopp have enough cover in his squad to address a scenario in which one or more of his prized attacking trident dropped out for a long spell?
Rather than speculate, I thought I would take a look at how Liverpool have actually coped over the last two seasons. How have Liverpool’s back up strikers performed when called into action?
The first thing to note is probably the obvious: Liverpool’s first choice strike force have been extremely durable over the last two seasons. Of the 67 Premier League games Liverpool have played since August 2018, Klopp has started at least two of Salah, Firmino or Mane on 64 occasions. All three have started in no less than 50 games.
Inevitably then, a look at contributions from Liverpool back up forwards would make for scant reading. In 2018/19, that task would fall on the shoulders of Divock Origi, Daniel Sturridge and Xerdan Shaqiri. Between those three, there were 19 starts and 35 substitute appearances in the Premier League.
Shaqiri made the most telling contribution, obviously but it’s important to note that in 8 of his 11 starts, he played alongside Mané, Salah and Firmino as Klopp toyed with 4-2-3-1 formation in the first half of that season.
The biggest impact of the back-ups last season though was more qualitative than quantitative. Sturridge for instance only scored twice in the Premier League, but one of those was a last minute equalizer that won Liverpool a point after he came off the bench at Chelsea.
Shaqiri came off the bench at 1-1 to score twice against Man United at Anfield and Origi came off the bench to settle the Merseyside derby in dramatic fashion. Oh, and that Newcastle game that prompted the Twitter quote above? Origi scored the decisive goal in a 3-2 win, heading home Shaqiri’s free kick four minutes from time.
That, of course, pales in comparison to what happened two days later, when both started (in the absence of he injured Firmino and Salah) against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final at Anfield: Origi scored twice and Shaqiri assisted Gini Wijnaldum’s second goal. The Belgian striker would also score in the final in Madrid three weeks later.
2019/20 has brought even slimmer pickings for Liverpool’s back up forwards. For one thing, Sturridge’s departure and Shaqiri’s injury troubles have left Origi to carry what load there has been – he’s started 5 times and come off the bench 17 times. Shaqiri’s contribution has dropped off significantly – even his 4 substitute appearances have come in the 85th, 84th, 87th and 91st minute of those games.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has filled the void on occasion, starting upfront in 4 of his 13 starts to date, but he’s played mostly in his preferred midfield role. As with the previous season, the consistency and durability of the first choice strikers makes it difficult to evaluate the adequacy of the back-ups; they simply -thankfully, perhaps – haven’t been required often enough.
There can be no denying the drop in individual class and quality when Liverpool play without one or two of that first choice front three. It’s why many fans have long desired the addition of a player like Werner, and partly explains the disappointment at last week’s news of his likely move to Chelsea.
Yet, here’s some food for thought: Liverpool have only started one Premier League game without two of their first choice front three this season. That was in the Merseyside derby last December when Origi and Shaqiri played alongside Mane. Origi scored two goals and Shaqiri scored one in a handsome 5-2 win. It’s the only time the Reds have scored five goals this season.
If you stretch it back to last season, the only other game that Liverpool started with that front three – Shaqiri, Origi, Mane – was that incredible 4-0 trouncing of Barcelona in the Champions League. And that was the same front three that finished the aforementioned Newcastle game.
It’s obviously a small sample size and nobody would suggest on that evidence that Liverpool do not need to further strengthen its attacking department. It certainly doesn’t suggest that the current squad would adequately cope with a long term absence of two or all three of the first choice three. Indeed, such are the standards they have set that it’s hard to imagine that any squad would adequately cover for such an absence.
Yet, that small sample size is all we can go by and, for the chances they’ve been granted, one can only conclude that the back-ups have contributed about as well as could have been expected over the last two seasons.
That is testament to the great team ethic and squad cohesion that Klopp has instilled at Anfield – and a huge credit to Sturridge, Origi, Shaqiri and Oxlade-Chamberlain.