Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino as a forward three were central to Liverpool’s European and domestic success over the past two seasons. However, the Reds lacked viable options to rotate their principal forwards to keep them fresh and prevent burn out, leaving them vulnerable if one of the three picked up a serious injury. Diogo Jota’s £40-million move from Wolverhampton Wanderers in September bolstered their depth up front and the Portuguese forward has certainly hit the ground running, scoring 12 goals in 24 games so far. But has his arrival allowed Jurgen Klopp to rotate Salah, Mane and Firmino more sensibly?
COMPARING THIS SEASON TO LAST
Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by each Liverpool forward for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. The reason why I have used a percentage rather than absolute minutes is because it allows comparison between seasons that have different number of games played. For example, Klopp’s side had 56 matches in total in 2019-20, yet have only played 44 games so far in 2020-21.
Surprisingly, both Salah and Mane have played a higher percentage of minutes this season than they did in 2019-20, suggesting that they have not benefitted from extra rest since Jota’s arrival so far. However, Firmino has seen a drop in his percentage from 74.9% to 67.3%, indicating that the Brazilian has been rested more.
Yet, the most interesting change is the drop-off in Divock Origi’s percentage of minutes this season, which has fallen from 26.3% to 13.6%. He has been the most disadvantaged player since Jota joined Liverpool as the Portuguese forward has taken his mantle as the Red’s go-to attacking back-up. Therefore, rather than Jota’s arrival necessarily giving Salah, Mane and Firmino more rest, it has allowed Liverpool to have a more effective fourth option than Origi provided in previous years. This is also reflected by the fact that Jota’s percentage of 36.4% is higher than Origi’s 26.3% from last season (despite Jota missing eleven weeks with a knee injury), which highlights how Klopp appears more comfortable playing the former than he was with the latter.
We also see the majority of these observations in the starts data. Below is a graph detailing the average number of starts before omission (benching or not in squad) for Liverpool’s forwards for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons:
Similarly to minutes played, Salah has seen his average number of starts increase this season compared to last, from 3.67 games to a staggering 6.50. The Egyptian has certainly cemented himself as Liverpool’s most important forward and this is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that Salah has scored the most goals so far too. Yet the same cannot be said for Mane, who has seen his average starts before omission drop from 4.56 to 3.67, which could be a by-product of Jota’s arrival. Firmino has also started less games in a row this season, falling from 4.00 to 2.42. Overall, this represents a change in the forward dynamics as both Mane and Firmino started more games in a row than Salah did last season, yet the opposite is true this year.
Jota has certainly played a part in this change of dynamics. Origi and Takumi Minamino are players brought into the XI to start just one game at a time (except once last season when Origi started two games in a row). In contrast, Klopp has no problem starting Jota in consecutive matches – demonstrated in his average of 2.17 starts before omission. This reinforces the argument that Jota is now seen as a better fourth option for Liverpool’s attack, which surely has implications for the utility of Salah, Mane and Firmino.
ZOOMING IN ON 2020-21 SEASON
It is difficult to establish whether Jota has allowed Salah, Mane and Firmino to have more rest because of the serious injury he suffered in December. The knee problem kept Jota out of action for eleven weeks, where he missed 18 games for Liverpool. This meant Klopp could not use Jota as an attacking option during this period. So to really understand how the forward dynamics work, we need to focus on matches where all four forwards have been available. This concerns just 17 games out of a possible 44 this season.
Below is a table detailing the minutes played by each Liverpool forward – Mane, Salah, Firmino, Origi, Minamino and Jota – during these 17 games. Dark green blocks represent full games played, whereas grassy green represents games where a player has started but was substituted off. Pale green blocks represent matches where a player was brought off the bench, meanwhile, yellow means they were an unused substitute and red shows that they were not included in the matchday squad.
Interestingly enough, Salah, Mane, Firmino and Jota are involved in all of the 17 matches somehow – either as a starter or a used substitute. Not only does this demonstrate how indispensable the first three forwards still are to Klopp and Liverpool, but also how Jota has been able to insert himself into that group and become an integral member himself.
Yet when we break their statistics down, we do start to see a hierarchy. Below is a graph detailing the number of starts and full games each Liverpool forward has had during this 17-game period, as well as the amount of times they have been subbed off and on:
Salah has had the most starts (16) and played the most full games (12) out of any of the Liverpool forwards during these 17 games, while Mane is in second with 13 starts and 11 full games. Firmino is technically in third with 11 starts, yet the Brazilian has only played one full game, whereas Jota has less starts (9) but more full games played (3). The graph also shows that Jota has been the most brought-on player, making eight substitute appearances, with Firmino in second with six, Mane and Minamino in third with four and Salah in fourth with just one appearances off the bench.
Although Jota’s arrival has made Liverpool’s attack more flexible, Klopp still prefers his forward three of Salah, Mane and Firmino. When he has all his attacking options available, they were the most favoured combination, starting seven of the 17 games (41.2%). Yet Jurgen is happy to swap Jota into the starting line-up for either Mane or Firmino when needed. Mane-Salah-Jota was the second favoured combination, starting three of the 17 matches (17.6%), meanwhile, Salah-Firmino-Jota and Mane-Salah-Firmino-Jota were in joint third with two starts each (11.8%).
However, it appears more difficult to bench Salah. Mane-Firmino-Jota is yet to be used as a starting combination when all four forwards are available, having only been deployed in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Leicester City in November because Salah had to miss the match after contracting coronavirus. So has Jota’s arrival had any impact on Salah’s utility?
JOTA’S IMPACT ON SALAH’S NUMBERS
Below is a graph detailing the percentage of games in which Salah started, played the full game and was substituted off and on for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 season, as well as the 17-game sample where all four forwards were available for selection.
Of most interest is the difference between his percentages for 2020-21 and the 17 games where all four forwards were available. Though Salah typically starts a higher percentage of games, he is less likely to play the full game and is therefore substituted more often when Klopp has his full attacking repertoire. This suggests Jota’s arrival has given Salah, like Liverpool’s other forwards, more flexibility to manage his workload, which can only be a positive for the Reds as they head into the final stretch of the season in hunt for a Champions League spot.
Nonetheless, drawing firm conclusions about Jota’s impact on Liverpool’s forward rotation is difficult because of the high number of games he missed through injury. It would be reasonable to assume that his involvement would have been higher if he was not absent for those eleven weeks. Even so, he certainly appears to have reduced Firmino’s workload this season, with the Brazilian starting less and being more likely to be substituted when he does.
Yet the picture is less clear for Mane and Salah. The former is starting less games before omission, which suggests he is being rested more. However, his minutes percentage is still up on last season, pointing to a lower concentration in full games played and a higher concentration in matches where Mane has either been substituted off or brought on. This probably provides a more manageable situation for both the player and Klopp.
The same can be said for Salah too but there is a key difference. He has massively increased his average starts before omission this season (unlike Mane and Firmino), yet is more likely to be substituted off when all four forwards are available. Therefore, Jota’s arrival may not have given Salah more rest game-to-game but more rest within a game, which is still important when managing a player’s workload across a season.
What is clear though is how Jota has cemented himself as an effective fourth attacking option for Liverpool. He has managed a feat that neither Origi nor Minamino were able to in the past; Klopp trusts Jota to start more than one game in a row and to be involved in a higher percentage of matches. The Portuguese forward has repaid this faith by scoring the second highest number of goals this season, so it will be hoped that his hot form can continue.