The beauty of Liverpool now having five elite forwards is the number of possibilities it opens for Jurgen Klopp. When the Reds’ front three was set in stone as Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, it was well known in which position each would play.
Yet having five options for a trio of forward berths means there are 10 possible combinations of three players Klopp could use to fill them, and that’s before you get to switching them between right, center or left. It would be a surprise to see Firmino starting in a wide position, but otherwise almost anything is on the table.
We have seen this since early February with Mane. Since returning from his successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign, the Senegalese international has often begun matches in the center of the attack. Mane did so nine times across his first five seasons with the Reds but he has already done so on eight occasions in 2021/22.
The impact of him playing there has been positive on both an individual and a team level. For starters, the only one of the eight matches which Liverpool have not won within 90 minutes was the triumphant Carabao Cup final against Chelseaand Mane has found the net in six of the fixtures, scoring eight goals in total.
The first instance was the 3-1 win over Norwich City at Anfield, in which the Reds’ number 10 equalized after the visitors had surprisingly taken the lead. Four days later Leeds United were in town and Mane’s contribution to Liverpool’s 6-0 victory was even more emphatic. He was fouled in the penalty box, allowing Salah to convert from the spot, and then scored himself twice in the second half.
The Reds’ first Wembley clash of the season with Chelsea followed next, and though Mane was unable to score he did have the Reds’ first two clear-cut chances of the match. It took a world class save from his countryman Edouard Mendy to prevent him from giving Liverpool the lead that day.
The following weekend, Mane scored probably his most important goal when playing centrally, as it was the decisive strike in a 1-0 win over West Ham. Klopp next selected him as the point in the Reds’ trident at Brighton, but he drew a blank, then four games later Mane was in the middle eleven again, scoring in a 3-1 win at the Estadio Da Luz.
That just leaves his first half brace at Wembley last weekend and his goal and assist on Tuesday against Manchester United to complete the set and provide a very solid foundation for the future. While the sample is too small to definitively prove anything – if stats ever can anyway – the underlying numbers are in good shape too.
Per Understat, Mane has averaged 0.68 expected goals per 90 minutes in his eight centre-forward starts for Liverpool in the Premier League, which is more than he has mustered in any other position. His work there has also made a sizeable contribution (in relative terms) to his performance against expectation too.
The former Southampton man has scored 88 league goals for the Reds from chances valued at 82.7 expected goals. By far the biggest over performance in proportional terms for any position has occurred when starting centrally, from where he has turned 5.3 xG into nine goals.
Scoring 70 percent more goals than expected is never going to last, but Mane may need to get accustomed to playing in the middle, at least if the evidence of the last two months is any indicator. While Klopp has multiple options up front, every time he has selected Mane centrally it has been with Salah to his right and Luis Diaz on his left. Since they were picked together for the Colombian’s first Liverpool start (against Leicester), they have been the Reds’ most used attacking threesome.
Clearly Firmino and Jota are going to have something to say about these being Klopp’s most used forwards in future, but Mane’s form when playing centrally may leave the Liverpool manager with little choice but to persist with using him there.