Liverpool stars Mane, Salah, Firmino should unity beats individuals
Wednesday night's Champions League action was a wonderful demonstration of the fact that football remains a team sport rather than an individual one, and that assembling the world's most talented footballers is no guarantee of making the world's most formidable side.
Contrast the two matches. In Madrid, Real ran out 3-1 winners over Paris Saint-Germain, but realistically neither side played impressive football, especially in the final third. There was too much speed and rather too little thought, with the game's defining feature the complete lack of interplay between the attackers.
Neymar and Edinson Cavani appear to have no relationship, while Kylian Mbappe floated around on the periphery. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, who have combined effectively over the years, barely offered any passing combinations either. It felt like a beauty parade rather than a football game, with a few choice individuals desperately trying to prove their individual worth.
Over in Porto, meanwhile, Liverpool were putting on quite the show. Five goals without reply, largely thanks to the understanding between the front three. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino might not quite be the calibre of individual PSG are interested in, but collectively they must now be considered among the most devastating attacking trios in Europe.
To imply this is some kind of anti-all-star triumvirate would be stretching the point -- Salah was voted African Player of the Year recently, Mane was also nominated, and Firmino is a regular for Brazil and all were signed for considerable fees. Yet there's an entirely different feel about Liverpool's front three: no egos, no selfishness.
Firmino is theoretically the primary goalscorer yet concentrates on providing as much as goalscoring. Mane's position has arguably been weakened after the arrival of Salah, who took his place on the right, and yet he has got on with business without complaint, providing his most important performance of the campaign against Porto. Salah, meanwhile, is as hard-working as he is productive, and has been the revelation of the season in the Premier League, and quite possibly the Champions League too.
It's worth remembering, too, that these players have previously been their side's star attraction. Indeed, all three were often deployed in the fabled No. 10 role at previous clubs. Mane was fielded in various positions at Southampton but often enjoyed his best performances when deployed in the role that matched the 10 in his shirt there. Firmino, too, was essentially a 10 at Hoffenheim, only converted into a false nine in his second season at Liverpool by Jurgen Klopp. And Salah was often devastating in a spell at Fiorentina when fielded as a second striker, which earned him a move to Roma, and then on to Liverpool.
It's to all three players' great credit, then, that they've successfully adapted to their positions at Liverpool without fuss, playing roles to suit the team rather than their own individual capabilities. Such humility is crucial for playing in Jurgen Klopp's system, which is all about energy and tactical discipline in the form of pressing.
Regardless of the benefits (winning the ball quickly in promising positions) and drawbacks (it's very tiring and possibly unsustainable over long periods) of Klopp's form of pressing, from a tactical perspective, it remains a brilliant way of rooting out bad influences, lazy players and those who play for themselves rather than the team. Klopp simply wouldn't tolerate a diva expecting everyone else to do his dirty work.
It's a stark contrast from the situation at Real Madrid, for example, where Ronaldo is largely allowed freedom from defensive responsibilities. Perhaps Ronaldo's goal return justifies that liberty, and it helps when he manages to score two crucial goals even when looking out of sorts, as was the case this week. Football has increasingly moved toward a situation where all 11 players must contribute with and without the ball, however.
In Philippe Coutinho's absence it is Salah who has become Liverpool's star, but Firmino who represents this system best. In a sense, Firmino is playing the role Leo Messi did for Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, the slightly withdrawn centre-forward who pulls the opposition centre-backs one way, allowing Mane and Salah to play the David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez roles, attacking in behind from wider. He also leads the pressing excellently, closing down in a manner which is both energetic and intelligent, pressing an opposition centre-back to force him toward the touchline, shepherding the opposition into a trap.
Gradually, Firmino has also become more of a centre-forward threat in a traditional sense, popping up into goal-scoring positions for tap-ins, goals you expect of true number nines rather than false nines. That has sometimes felt like a bonus, but in truth it's entirely necessary if Liverpool are to develop into genuine contenders for the Premier League -- and, more immediately, with their place in the quarterfinals all but confirmed, the Champions League.
Firmino's greatest contribution for Liverpool this week, though, was his marvellous flick into Salah's path for Liverpool's second goal against Southampton, a truly outstanding touch that took two opponents out of the game immediately, and owed much to a combination of spatial awareness, selflessness and supreme technical skill. Salah had assisted him for the first, Firmino repaid the favour for the second.
It was visually spectacular but also highly effective, and precisely the type of thing we didn't witness during Real's win over PSG, where Neymar was attempting to dribble past the entire Real defence solo, and where Ronaldo had 10 shots but didn't pass to Karim Benzema once. To recall two old themes, Liverpool's pass-and-move is far more impressive than Real's Galacticos.
Liverpool's progress so far in Europe this season has been smooth, in part because of some favourable draws, but it would be fascinating to see against a side like Real or PSG in the next round. After all, the constant theme of this Liverpool side is that they perform better against strong opposition -- and that might become particularly obvious against supposedly stronger clubs who have put too much emphasis upon the individual, and too little upon the team.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.