Fast and Furious: The Liverpool Front 3 That's Reawakened a City's Passion

Simon HughesContributor IApril 23, 2018

Federico Manasse for B/R

The Twelfth Man is one of half a dozen pubs on the adjoining roads of Walton Breck and Oakfield where Liverpool supporters congregate before and after home matches. It is 9 p.m. April 14, and Bournemouth have just been beaten convincingly, 3-0. Upstairs, as the pint glasses clatter and the beer and conversation flow, the singing starts up again. "Mo Salah, Mo Salah, Mo Salah...running down the wing...Salah la la la la la...Egyptian King..."

On and on it goes for a good 10 minutes, the enthusiasm and noise rising with each verse. Night is falling, and the windows are steaming because of the mass of bodies and the bouncing of some weighty supporters. You wonder whether the floors will be able to take it all.

Salah is the symbol of this Liverpool team. His season has been astonishing: 41 goals in 46 games. His 31 just in the Premier League equal a club record set by Luis Suarez and a Premier League record for a 38-game season. In fact, Salah has scored more individually than three other teams in the same division. And he still has three more league games to go.

He is the first Egyptian to play for Liverpool. Suddenly, Egyptian national flags are appearing on the terraces at Anfield. He arrived last summer from AS Roma as a winger. Nobody expected him to achieve such feats.

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He had played in the Premier League before with Chelsea but failed to establish himself. In Rome, he was outstanding, but he could not be described as clinical. Yet Salah might end this season as the leading scorer in England and a Golden Boot winner. He might even lift the Champions League trophy in Kiev, Ukraine. On Sunday, he was named by his fellow professionals as Player of the Year.

The red half of Liverpool is in love with Salah, but it is also beguiled with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. With a combined 83 goals between them in just 50 games this season, it's easy to see why.

"The Fab Four, call it whatever—that is for you," Jurgen Klopp said after Liverpool had secured progression from their group in the Champions League in December, crushing Spartak Moscow 7-0 at Anfield. The scorers that night? Salah, of course, with one; another from Firmino; two for Mane; and a hat-trick delivered by Philippe Coutinho.

This is a club that had not reached the knockout stages of Europe's most prestigious competition in nine years, yet Klopp was wary of offering the sort of platitudes that create enduring headlines, particularly ones that might backfire.

Understanding came a month later, when four became three. Coutinho, the hypnotically skilled Brazilian midfielder, had wanted to leave Liverpool for Spanish champions Barcelona since the summer.

Liverpool rejected two offers, and owner John W. Henry went public in his determination to keep hold of the player, concerned not only that Liverpool would be unable to find a replacement before the closure of the transfer window but also because of the negative feeling that would inevitably fall on Anfield if a deal were sanctioned.

Privately, Klopp had been open to the possibility of a sale. The charismatic German demands commitment from his players, and the moment he thinks it is not there, he starts analysing and looking for alternative solutions. This does not mean he is precious or that he hurts easily because someone working under him believes their prospects would be better served under a different manager.

Many one-to-one meetings were held with Coutinho through the autumn and into winter to ensure he was still focused and contributed in a positive way to Liverpool's campaign. Until the final moments before he left for Barcelona in the biggest-ever deal involving an English club, Klopp was trying to keep him.

The Fab Four became three when Coutinho left.
The Fab Four became three when Coutinho left.IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

Yet he is enough of a realist to appreciate the need to plan for a future without him. This is where the emotional Klopp seen on the touchline ends and the more pragmatic and analytical Klopp begins.

It explains why Klopp changed Coutinho's position in the team. By the point of Coutinho's departure, though there were still doubts about the level of creativity remaining in Liverpool's otherwise industrious midfield, Klopp had fashioned a front three that did not include Coutinho.

By January, the Liverpool attack was already gaining a reputation as one to be feared across Europe. Three months later, Salah, Firmino and Mane have helped power Liverpool to the semi-finals of the Champions League for only the fourth time since 1985. Meanwhile, Coutinho was cup-tied as Barcelona progressed to the quarters, in which they were surprisingly knocked out by Roma, who face Liverpool in the first leg of the next round on Tuesday.

Without Coutinho, Liverpool's record as a team has improved, with the ratio of games won in the Premier League increasing from 54.5 percent to 61.5 percent. Across all competitions, the figures are not quite as impressive, but there has nevertheless been a rise from 56.3 percent to 61.1 percent.

While Liverpool have conceded fewer goals per game since January—which can also be attributed toward Virgil van Dijk's arrival from Southampton in a world-record fee for a defender—they have maintained their potency in front of goal.

In reality, the Fab Four title was fleeting. It came and went quickly because before Coutinho left Liverpool, Klopp rarely selected the four players together anyway. His preference for rotation proved to be smart management because it kept fresh the three he knew would remain for the second half of the season. Previously, it had widely been believed Liverpool were over-reliant on Coutinho. But when he was withdrawn from some fixtures, Liverpool's players found they could win games without him. From there, confidence grew.

Salah has exceeded expectations at Anfield.
Salah has exceeded expectations at Anfield.LINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

Before Saturday's draw with West Bromwich Albion, the number of minutes played by the front three in the league has been more or less the same since Coutinho's departure, with Mane featuring the most at 978 minutes and Firmino the least at 973 minutes. This consistency has allowed the relationship to flourish. Whereas with Coutinho, Salah was scoring a goal in the league every 94 minutes and 98 minutes across all competitions, he is now is scoring every 75 minutes and 77 minutes. The improvement in statistical output is replicated by the other two but for Firmino across all competitions, as he is now taking an extra nine minutes.

There is a danger in boiling contributions down purely to statistics, which in football are safer to use as support when trying to convince in an argument.

Firmino can easily be forgiven because he is the hardest worker of the three. He has never said it publicly, but Klopp considers Firmino to be the most important player in his team. Against Bournemouth, the Brazilian's selflessness was highlighted when he created the 50th chance for a team-mate in a season while also making his 60th tackle.

When Liverpool needed an equaliser in the quarter-final second leg at Premier League champions-elect Manchester City, it was scored by Salah, but that opportunity was only made possible because Firmino chased Kevin De Bruyne for around 50 yards toward his own goal before stealing possession and starting a hallmark Liverpool counter-attack.

Salah is the hero because of his sheer weight of goals, but Firmino sets the tone and the best example.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is still a teenager. He is Merseyside born and is expected to become a Liverpool captain in the future. Against Roma, he is likely to be Liverpool's right-back. He says his development has been helped by the abilities of those around him at Melwood, Liverpool's training centre. Trying to stop Salah, Firmino and Mane, he says, makes real games easier because opponents are not at the same level. It is from Firmino he learns the most.

"He's a very, very, very special player," Alexander-Arnold said. "I think he's definitely underrated in terms of the recognition that he gets. I think he links the whole team together. He links the front three together, especially.

"He always plays a part. If you watch him closely, his drive and enthusiasm to get back and defend as a No. 9 is incredible. Most of the time you see him is near the halfway line, tracking back and making tackles. You don't really see that from an all-round No. 9. It just shows his hunger to win. ... He is priceless to us, I'd say."

Klopp sometimes asks Firmino to rest while others train in order to save him. "Roberto loves running ... and chasing the players. If I said to him, 'Stop it,' he couldn't," Klopp said in March after a 5-0 victory over Watford.

The high regard in which he is held is reflected when Klopp substitutes him first in order to preserve him for future challenges—even ahead of Salah, who last weekend became only the third player in Liverpool history to score 40 goals in a season.

Firmino's work rate has been key.
Firmino's work rate has been key.LINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

The fee Liverpool paid was a club record at the time, but now it looks like loose change. Liverpool do not want Salah to go the same way as Coutinho, with Real Madrid regularly suggested as admirers, but if figures were to be discussed, it would involve a sum four or five times the amount traded only last summer with Roma.

Klopp would like Salah to track back more and embrace defensive duties, but he makes allowances because Salah's impact has been too irresistible to ignore.

Like Firmino, Salah has a background in other positions (Firmino was an attacking midfielder at Hoffenheim in Germany), but in the first two weeks of pre-season training, Klopp identified the necessity for slight shifts in responsibility: Salah would function in a more central role.

As Liverpool's attacking three is narrow, it often overloads opponents, particularly those who play with only two central defenders. Put simply, because Salah has been closer to the goal, he has been able to score more often.

Salah's goalscoring feats have earned him the tag "Egyptian King" among Liverpool's fervent supporter base. Yet the aforementioned song in his name, sung to the tune of "Sit Down" by English indie band James, is not the only one about him.

Peter Hooton, the lead singer of The Farm, is a Liverpool season-ticket holder in the Kop, the stadium's most famous stand. He thinks it helps that Salah's name seems to "fit with every song since the 1960s."

He is not alone in his concern that Salah might end up leaving—like Suarez, like Coutinho, like Fernando Torres and like Raheem Sterling, indeed. "Liverpool supporters have been bitten in the past, but Salah's scored so many goals, there has been a tidal wave of emotion," Hooton said.

"But even the most cynical supporter can't help but get caught up in it. His individual achievements have made us think we can do anything as a team because it's pretty clear that, although he deserves credit for so many goals, a lot of his success has been because of the framework around him.

"At the beginning of the season, there were lots of pundits that said Liverpool would not succeed because they haven't got a natural 25-goal-a-season player. Nobody envisaged they'd end up having two in Salah and Firmino. The impact of the three has been immeasurable. They're unpredictable. They act on instinct. But there's a relationship there. It's too much for a lot of opponents."

There is respect from within for Firmino and love for Salah, but what of Mane, the wiry Senegalese who is a gnarling presence on the pitch but quiet off it?

He was signed from Southampton in 2016, and there has been an impression that his second season at Anfield has not quite been as successful as his first. Yet by scoring 10 goals in the league (17 overall), Mane has ensured that, for only the third time since 1990/91, Liverpool's top three league scorers have reached double figures for the campaign.

Mane could be coming into form at the right time.
Mane could be coming into form at the right time.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

His form has been patchy, but there have been signs in recent weeks that his confidence is returning just at the right time.

Barcelona are on the verge of winning Spain's La Liga title, and on Saturday night, they dismantled Sevilla 5-0 in the Copa del Rey final. Suarez and the great Lionel Messi have contributed 69 goals toward another season of success. While Liverpool have won nothing yet, it is worth reiterating that Salah, Firmino and Mane have scored 83 goals between them.

It is often suggested no club is as much a prisoner of its past as Liverpool, who are without an English championship since 1989/90. Players and teams are often compared with the past before it is appropriate, but in order to establish just how prolific this front three have been, it is worth looking backward.

Liverpool's most revered forward lines have more often involved partnerships of two rather than trios. The most relevant comparison involves the combination of John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes, who managed 64 goals in the 1987/88 season and 67 the year later when Ian Rush was also involved, having returned to the club from Juventus.

Those seasons involved 50 and 53 games, while the current one has featured 50 with a maximum of six and a minimum of five to follow.

"There are parallels in the evolution of Kenny Dalglish's great [late 1980s] Liverpool team and this one," said Mike Nevin, a writer for the Anfield Wrap fan site.

"Anyone who has witnessed, particularly in the flesh, the speed, movement and class of this brilliant new front three cannot deny there is scope for comparison. Firmino is like Zorro. Mane confuses everyone. Salah is very different to John Barnes in terms of style, but in terms of goals, he's actually been even better."

Back at The Twelfth Man, the clock on the wall ticks toward midnight. Liverpool's victory over Bournemouth was hours ago, but the glow of success endures.

On the warren of streets outside, fans are still leaving the area, heading past the rows of terraced houses, the chip shops and the bookmakers toward the buses, taxis and trains that will take them home. While they walk confidently, they sing about the Egyptian King. It feels like Liverpool are on the march again.


All quotes and information obtained firsthand. Statistics supplied by Ged Rea.

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