Of all the clips of Amazon’s Manchester City fly-on-the wall documentary last year, it is the image of a pensive Pep Guardiola giving his thoughts on Liverpool’s front three that went viral.
It was a few days before City’s trip to Anfield in the Champions League quarter-final, and Guardiola was anxiously shuffling around the visiting dressing room at Goodison Park before the preceding Premier League match, head bowed, thinking aloud.
“The forwards for Liverpool are good. Those three up front. They scare me. They are dangerous,” he said, the reassurance of his backroom staff having little comfort.
Guardiola’s fears were well founded, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in destructive form as Liverpool won 3-0 on an evening which has left deep scars, on and off the pitch.
The City manager’s concerns have hardly diluted in the 18 months since, Guardiola more public with his remarks about Mane’s influence particularly before Sunday’s game.
Last season, Guardiola made compromises in a way rarely, if ever, seen before or since during his spell in English football. The only bus incident of note was the parking of City’s in front of the Kop.
Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino have 18 Premier League appearances collectively against City, scoring six goals, and the argument put to Guardiola before Liverpool clashes was stop their front three and you stop Liverpool. “Pep, it is only them,” the City manager was told by his performance analyst, Carles Planchart, in that clip. The implication about Liverpool’s strengths and limitations could not be clearer. Planchart will no doubt be as aware as most of Liverpool’s evolution since. Statistically, at least, Liverpool are less reliant on their front three than in the previous two years. In 2017-18, Salah, Mane and Firmino accounted for 68 per cent of Liverpool’s goals. This year, that has dropped to 56 per cent.
The fall in Salah’s goal ratio accounts for that, but it is balanced by the increased influence of Mane, who missed 15 per cent of Liverpool’s games in 2017-18 but has been an ever-present this year.
“Sadio is living his greatest moments right now,” said his team-mate and closest friend in the squad, Naby Keita. Mane has certainly been to the fore recently, averaging more goals per game, and the combinations between him and Firmino have significantly increased, while those between Mane and Salah have fallen.
Klopp has often spoken about Mane not realising how good he is. It may be a stretch to suggest he is underrated, but the Senegal striker is certainly worth holding in the same esteem as illustrious Anfield predecessors.
While Mane is in the form of his life, Salah is seeking to rediscover his blistering goalscoring form, the Egyptian somewhat harshly judged to the standard of 40-goal-a-year striker when a 25-goal-a-season attacker is still impressive in the modern era.
Without Aymeric Laporte, City must find the right combination between John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho to repel Liverpool’s attacking threat.
Planchart may now admit there is much more to Liverpool than their front three, especially after witnessing Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s output, or indeed Fabinho ensuring the one area where there was a gulf between City and Liverpool – central midfield – is no longer such a concern for Klopp.
It is a fair assumption Guardiola is as fretful before this Anfield trip as for any of those before.