In the final part of a three part series, I’m going to have a look at Liverpool’s forward line and see what options are open to Jürgen Klopp as we head into the summer. For the purposes of ease I’m only going to talk about players that are officially on the club’s books, regardless of how excited we might all be getting about the chance of Mario Gotze arriving at Anfield in the summer.
I’m also not going to bother with any youth players. Aside from the fact that Jerome Sinclair is as good as gone from the club, the reality is that Klopp is hardly going to abandon movement in the transfer market this summer because a player at the Academy has scored a couple of goals for the Under-21s.
The Main Man
For some Liverpool fans the question over whether or not Daniel Sturridge is at Anfield next season is a no-brainer. He’s a bonafide world-class striker; a man who knows who to stick the ball into the back of the net no matter what’s going on and how long he’s been out of the starting line-up. At a time when Liverpool desperately need to score more goals, getting rid of a proven goalscorer seems like folly in the extreme.
Yet to others the argument isn’t so clear cut. Sturridge’s injury issues are well documented, but they’re also seriously worrying. Yes he’s a world-class striker when he’s fit, but how often he’s fit is a genuinely troubling question. There was a moment this season when the balanced tipped and Sturridge had missed more Liverpool games through injury than he’d played. Whilst the balance has been restored of late it’s a close-run thing and it won’t take much for the scale to tip back into the negative in the coming weeks.
Another question that needs to be considered as far as Sturridge is concerned is whether or not he fits into Klopp’s system. Despite his desire to be the main man at Anfield it’s difficult to argue with the idea that he’s at his best when he’s playing in a two up top, but the manager tends to prefer one striker with a busy, interchangeable midfield behind him. Is this something the England striker can adapt to well enough to make it a viable option?
On top of that there can be no denying that the former Chelsea hitman doesn’t like to press and close down anywhere near as much as a Klopp striker needs to. The geggenpressing style that the German is famous for starts at the front, with Divock Origi showing when he’s started exactly what is expected of a striker in a Klopp system. Sturridge has many talents, but he’s never been one to constantly run, harass and bother opposition defenders. He’s more of a play on the shoulder or drop deep and collect type forward. They’re not to be sniffed at, of course, but if it’s not what Klopp wants then what can be done?
A lot of Sturridge’s future will almost certainly depend on how big any potential offer for him is. On the one hand Klopp may want to keep hold of him for another year in order to see how well he can adapt to Liverpool’s new way of playing, but on the other a £45 million offer from the likes of PSG could be enough to persuade the German to get rid of his talisman whilst he’s still fit. Sadly we’re not a club that can afford to indulge a luxury player and a Daniel Sturridge that spends half of his time on the treatment table is exactly that.
Let’s be honest, there isn’t an awful lot Tim Sherwood’s got right during his managerial career. His repeated questioning of why Christian Benteke would want to move to a club that doesn’t play to his strengths has to go into the ‘fair point’ column, though, even if the scruffy meff is a large part of the reason why Aston Villa are getting relegated.
Benteke was always likely to be a plan B even if Brendan Rodgers has remained Liverpool manager, so his opportunities were likely to be limited further by the changing of the guard in the manager’s dugout. Yes Jürgen Klopp reportedly wanted him when he was at Dortmund, but that was when he was young and impressionable and the German felt he could mould him into the player he needed.
His recent performances have made the point rather succinctly that Benteke is a player who has his own way of playing and doesn’t show enough for anyone in the Liverpool team to adapt to make it work. Was the big Belgian ever likely to be Philippe Coutinho’s dream man in the final third? Or Adam Lallana’s? Even Alberto Moreno seems annoyed at his constant lack of movement and intelligence. If Alberto Moreno is bemoaning your lack of intelligence then you know you really have got problems.
Benteke’s lack of involvement combined with his recent not-so-subtle criticisms of the manager whilst away on international duty mean that his number is surely up at Anfield. With big games left to play this season, though, and the Belgian’s presumed desire to move somewhere half-decent come the summer you can imagine him being used a few more times before the curtain closes on another season on Merseyside.
If Christian Benteke, or Daniel Sturridge for that matter, needs an example of a player who is adapting his game to fit into Klopp’s master plan than they need look no further than Benteke’s international teammate Divock Origi.
It’s certainly true that the striker lacks the goalscoring prowess of Sturridge, but he makes up for it with his desire to close, press and generally just run himself into the ground for Liverpool’s cause. His hat-trick against Southampton in the League Cup also showed that he does know how to find the back of the net when he’s presented with a decent opportunity.
There’s no way of knowing whether Origi will ever develop into Liverpool’s main striker, but right now it’s difficult to see how Klopp will do anything other than keep hold of him for the foreseeable future. He’s young enough to be happy with a role in the squad for the time being and seems the sort of lad who will know how to take his chance when he’s given it. No one will be happy if he’s our only option next season, but he’s definitely a better plan B than his countryman.
The Other Option
The bores that seem to be inexplicably against the signing of Mario Gotze have one refrain they keep coming back to: We’ve got too many number 10s already. It’s true that, on paper, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino can all play in similar positions. But there’s also no doubting that whilst Coutinho and Lallana are very much midfielders, Firmino has been at his best this season when he’s been used in an attacking role.
Liverpool have used more false-nines than Kim Kardashian has false body parts over the last couple of years, but none have been as successful as Firmino at actually putting the ball in the back of the net. The Brazilian has formed a habit of frustrating and delighting in equal measure, sometimes in the same match.
Yes he gives the ball away stupidly when it seems more difficult to get the pass wrong than actually completing it, but you can’t argue with his raw numbers. Whilst the entirety of the country’s press seem to be wetting themselves whenever Dmitri Payet so much as ties his shoelaces, Firmino has quietly gone about his business, scoring nine goals and assisting in the scoring of another nine in 38 games across all competitions. That’s only two less of each than the West Ham middle man has managed.
A Liverpool team that features Coutinho, Firmino and Mario Gotze behind a fit and firing Daniel Sturridge is one worthy of the fire emoticon that Twitter users so love to put after everything, but that doesn’t mean that we should rule out the possibility of Firmino being used as the main striking option in the future, should the game situation call for it.
The beauty of Firmino is that he knows how to score all sorts of different goals. He’s hit a far few belters during his short time at Anfield so far, but he’s also scored the more intricate, get-on-the-end-of-a-ten-pass-move type goal, too. On top of that his goal against United in the Europa League was the ultimate combination of poacher-meets-intelligent-player. He was in the right place at the right time, but he still bought himself a few vital moments before turning the ball into the back of the net.
Much like with Origi, few Liverpool supporters will be happy if Firmino is the only striking option we’ve got moving into next season. But considering some questioned whether he was good enough when he first signed, he’s certainly proved his doubters wrong. He’s also not had all that long to adjust to the English game, when you think about it, and considering the way in which Mezut Ozil has come on leaps and bounds this season after a tough introduction to Premier League football in the last campaign, you have to think the Brazilian will be even better once he’s fully adjusted to life on Merseyside.
The Forgotten Men
It’s an odd one, the Danny Ings situation. He’s not only the forgotten man as far as Liverpool are concerned, with his cruciate ligament injury essentially ruling him out for the majority of the season, but even his fee doesn’t seem to have been figured out yet. The Reds will have to pay a fee to Burnley based on the decision of a tribunal, but the people involved in deciding it have been locked in a basement at the bottom of the FA’s HQ since August.
Of all of Liverpool’s strikers it is Ings that I feel sorry for the most. Whilst Daniel Sturridge has had major injury problems throughout his career, he’s still had opportunities to prove to both Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp exactly what it is that he brings to the table. Similarly Christian Benteke might not have impressed, but at least he’s been fit enough to get onto the pitch, whilst Firmino and Origi have both become firm favourites of the new Reds boss.
Ings, meanwhile, injured himself in training just moments after Klopp was installed as Rodgers’ replacement. It was as if his poor knee found the whole thing far too exciting and simply imploded at the very thought of all of the pressing and closing it was going to get to do.
Ings, you feel, is a player that Klopp will love. He deserved more than to see his goal against Norwich at Anfield end up essentially pointless, with the Canaries striking back and earning themselves a point when all of the joy should have been his. That he scored the goal in the derby was great for him too, with Liverpool fans immediately taking to his work ethic and ability to keep running.
Rodgers, for reasons best known to the Northern Irishman, favoured using the former Burnley front man out of position, something you feel Klopp won’t do. If a front four of Coutinho, Firmino, Gotze and Sturridge is enough to terrify any defences, what would a front unit of Lallana, Firmino, Ings and Origi do to tiring legs that just want to be left alone? It’s a pressing, closing down machine waiting to happen.
The only real question mark around Ings is whether or not he’ll be the same player when he returns from his injury. Given he’s never really been blessed with blistering pace, you have to assume should be ok. If he is then, at the age of just 23, he could go on to be a real asset under the management of a guy who looks for work-rate from his players almost above anything else.
Ah Mario, you crazy fool, you. Why did Rodgers sign him? Why did he come? Why didn’t he, you know, actually run around a bit and stuff?
I’ll be honest, I do think Mario Balotelli actually tried harder than he’s given credit for during his time at Anfield. He was never good enough, don’t get me wrong, but he also wasn’t the lazy, completely useless player that many Liverpool fans decided he was. In the semi-final of the FA Cup against Villa at Wembley he actually looked the player most likely to make a difference when he replaced Lazar Markovic at half-time.
But if the Christian Benteke experiment is one we can declare a waste of time and try to scrub from our memory then the Mario Balotelli one is even worse. He could have been so much better for us. He could have made a real difference. Instead he’ll be consigned to a dustbin with a label on it saying ‘Mistakes’ and, like the residents of Room 101, have to spend eternity talking to Julian Dicks and El-Hadj Diouf.