The pair’s recent underperformance has been exacerbated by three-game winless run, leaving the Reds worrying over the chasing pack in title race
That result in South London seemed significant because all the forwards utilised by Jurgen Klopp contributed in one way or another against the Eagles.
Sadio Mane finally ended a nine-game goal drought in all competitions and set up another, Roberto Firmino netted two in a league game for the first time since December 2019 and Mohamed Salah came off the bench to score twice and assist in 30 minutes after replacing the Senegal star.
Even Takumi Minamino got in on the act with his first Premier League strike for the club, while the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain contributed to Salah’s second of that terrific afternoon.
Results against West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Southampton have, however, put the defending champions in a position where they could drop to third if Manchester City and Manchester United win their games in hand.
In truth, maybe Liverpool could count themselves unlucky to have come away with two points from nine in the last three having pummelled The Albion for the opening 45 minutes, missed a plethora of chances against Newcastle and arguably deserved a point on Monday night on the balance of play.
Mane opened the scoring against West Bromwich but hasn’t scored since, Salah was the chief culprit in that goalless encounter at St James’ Park and both were culpable after missing Liverpool’s best openings in the 1-0 loss on the south coast.
In isolation, Klopp’s team haven’t been abysmal in the aforementioned winless run and possibly deserved six points at least having dominated all three opponents in those games. The Premier League table, though, reflects a different reality.
Liverpool’s last two league campaigns were largely characterised by an overperformance at both ends of the pitch, but it was certainly far pronounced in the attacking third. This was, by and large, due to the contribution of Salah and Mane, whose consistency in front of goal was vital in the Reds outperforming their expected goals in 2018/19 and last season by 15.4 and 13.5 respectively.
The pair’s fleeting open-play effectiveness this season has seen a significant drop off, with Liverpool’s xG of 33.1 not far behind their actual tally of 37. Liverpool’s expected goals difference per 90 of 0.77 is also lower than two years ago (1.15) and the title-winning campaign (0.83).
While the decline at the back can be attributed to long-term absences of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, as well as intermittent layoffs for Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip and Fabinho, the reduction in attacking output could chiefly be put down to the team’s general inability to score goals out of nothing or put away low-percentage chances.
Case in point was Mane’s missed effort in the 33rd minute against his old side on Monday after receiving a first-time pass from Thiago Alcantara. The forward was oddly allowed to chop in on his stronger foot, but the Senegalese sent the attempt way off target.
Despite not being the worst chance to miss — and it certainly wasn’t the West African’s most-presentable opportunity on the night — the effort was slightly similar to the opening he clinically dispatched in the corresponding fixture last season, a game Liverpool won 2-1 after creating fewer clear-cut chances.
Such fine margins have contributed to Liverpool’s struggles this term, with Mane’s slump symbolising the Reds’ frustration in attack.
The African Footballer of the Year has scored six times from xG of 7.6, currently the worst underperformance for Klopp’s players and in the league’s bottom 11, a group that includes Chelsea’s Timo Werner (ranked fourth bottom), who’s been roundly criticised for his profligate finishing this season.
This is certainly an anomaly for Mane, who netted 22 goals from expected goals of 16.1 when Liverpool narrowly missed out on the title and found the back of the net 18 times despite his xG of 13.8 when the 2019 Champions League winners claimed the title post-lockdown.
Indeed, the exponential slide from being the highest-ranked of Klopp’s players in both seasons —while topping the entire division in 18/19 and being the seventh most-effective finisher last term — to ranking in the lower rungs is jarring, to say the least.
Without question, he’s the bigger worry for the club’s German boss, due to Salah’s over-performance this term which places him second in the whole league and ninth most-clinical finisher when penalties are excluded.
Mane’s continued struggles mean the return of Diogo Jota can’t come soon enough, given the Portugal international’s impact in front of goal since signing from Wolverhampton Wanderers, although there needs to be caution in not rushing the 24-year-old’s comeback.
However, Liverpool have to make do in the interim, hope their Senegal star somehow plays himself into form and that Salah’s influence increases with their title defence hitting a roadblock in the last few games.
The Reds current run without scoring in the league is their longest stretch without a goal since Klopp took charge and the Senegal star must return to previous levels of excellence to prevent the Merseyside club from surrendering the title.