LAST-minute change of plan. I was planning to write about the returning Phil Coutinho this week but someone has got there before me.
However, I can’t let it pass without a mini lecture for the hypersensitive. When the errant Brazilian rascal reappears in red, treat him no differently. Don’t stint on the “ole”s.
Before he realised that residence in Italy was “like living in a foreign country”, Ian Rush agitated for a move to Napoli in 1983. Liverpool wouldn’t budge. Rushie didn’t speak to chairman, John Smith for months and his titty lip spent weeks licking the dirt off the dressing room floor. Three years he later eventually signed for Juventus – mainly for the money, but dressed up as financial security – and was loaned back for one last Liverpool year. No one booed him. Everyone sang his name.
In the respective seasons following his Neapolitan strop and his actual commitment to departure for Italy, Rush banged in 90 goals. Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish didn’t flinch. His colleagues didn’t care. Team spirit? Not bothered.
Get the lad on the pitch and watch victories build the camaraderie. The word “reintegration” had no place in the ‘80s football lexicon.
When he does come back, most sensibly after a brief snooze on a Perspex Etihad bench this weekend, Phil will reassume his former midfield mantle. No chance is he getting in that Reds front three. All week, my every thought of Manchester City versus Liverpool just brings images to mind of an electric threesome – Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah. The flames emoji dominates the Twitter.
It is still early days for Liverpool’s latest forward line but based on what we’ve seen so far, the sky is the limit. The addition of Salah’s outrageous pace, as evidenced in his 100-yard goal-scoring dash against Arsenal, to Mane’s incisiveness and Firmino’s unique exploration of space gives Jürgen Klopp a trident already sparking debates and comparison with the club’s greatest attacking lineups.
The game has changed radically in recent years. Counter attack is en vogue. Salah’s sprint leaving Gunners’ defenders trailing in his wake and Mane’s earlier shift to the right and rapier-like shot exposed an Arsenal team trying to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool, reinforcing the folly of such an approach. Offer this Liverpool team the chance to run at you or attack space in behind and see how you go. All the best.
Modern football no longer sees romantic yearning for the touchline-hugging grace of wingers of yesteryear like Steve Heighway. Likewise, a beanpole centre forward akin to John Toshack would be the definition of anachronism in a Klopp team. Admittedly, Kevin Keegan – a man ahead of his time in every sense – brought industry combined with understated natural flair which stays relevant and is the closest parallel between new and old.
That said, Bill Shankly constructed and Paisley developed a forward line wholly characteristic of its era; the lanky Toshack gorging on Heighway’s left-wing crosses while Keegan – a constant fucking nuisance to defenders – was alive to everything in between. If Keegan and Toshack enjoyed a rare telepathy, the synchronicity between the strikers and Heighway’s intelligent probing of the space to their left brought Liverpool a strikeforce that dominated domestic football and fronted The Reds’ emergent successes in Europe.
The ‘70s trio were, individually, all entirely different footballers but acted as perfect foils for one another. Similarly the new crop are distinctly dissimilar players but with the same burgeoning threat.
Firmino increasingly challenges the notion of a false nine, occasionally rekindling centre-forward traditions but remaining elusive as a paper bag in the wind. He’s not likely to be as prolific as Rush or Fernando Torres but his numbers are on the rise and his goals collection, while still decorated by the odd screamer, is becoming reassuringly more routine. Firmino loiters with intent – all over the pitch. He’s so omnipresent you half expect to find him hiding in your toilet. Old stagers will remember the lurking menace of Manchester United’s Denis Law and draw fair comparison.
Mane, who would be no slouch on the track, also brings muscularity, determination and that peculiar centre of gravity that is the preserve of the very best. Diego Maradona and John Barnes readily spring to mind. Like those two greats of the game, the Senegalese is seldom floored by even the most robust of challenges. When it comes to hitting the back of the net his Arsenal strike when The Reds last graced Anfield, was reminiscent of one Barnes’ great (right-foot) goals – curled into the far corner of the net – against Aston Villa in 1990.
Salah’s most obvious gift is that warp speed but seemingly he has an uncoachable poachers’ penalty-box instinct to boot. The Egyptian already has two tap ins – against Watford and Hoffenheim – to his name. If we’re still searching for association with the past and the very best Liverpool units, it would be remiss not to mention the combination of the unparalleled Barnes, a wispish Peter Beardsley and the predatory knack of John Aldridge. Salah is a far cry from the antiquated Aldridge but, if there is a legitimate similarity, it would be the occasional errant finish in a team creating a glut of chances.
Dalglish’s crop were rightly nicknamed “The Entertainers” and if the sheer anticipation of watching Mane, Firmino and Salah ply their stirring trade together is anything to go by, supplemented by Coutinho’s vision and craft, we might be dreaming up similar labels next May. The 1988 league champions were acclaimed by an exclusively Liverpool “Match of the Day” goal of the season showreel and already Klopp’s latest incarnation have offered up several award-winning candidates; starting with Mane’s precise campaign opener at Watford last month.
The last of several Red beauties so far was netted by Daniel Sturridge, courtesy of a Salah cross Heighway would have been proud of. If Arsenal were left naked for Liverpool’s fourth, Sturridge’s firm header at the far post was the cruel whisk that removed Arsene Wenger’s underpants. One wonders how many goals a lithe Sturridge (circa 2013) – but even in his restricted current guise – might score were he consistently flanked by the pace of Mane and Salah.
Sturridge of course showed his truest colours on the left of a beguiling triumvirate that all but found Liverpool the Holy Grail in 2014. Raheem Sterling, who shares many of Mane’s gifts, emerged as Brendan Rodgers’ element of surprise on the opposite flank. The manager’s brave perseverance with his inconsistent young buck, in tandem with Sturridge (relocated to the opposite wing) brought out the very best of that incomparable arch-bastard Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan conjurer ascended heights not reached alongside Andy Carroll and the likes of Craig Bellamy as Liverpool discovered magic anew, with Suarez as the focal point.
Mane, Salah and Firmino still have some way to go before they match the output of a Rodgers’ team breaching a record Liverpool FC mark of 100 league goals. However, they bear a clear similarity; a devastating team within a team, one that perhaps highlights relative weakness elsewhere, leaving some of their teammates fighting over scraps of what remains of the plaudits.
Still, when you’re thrashing teams just for japes, where’s the fun in thinking about defenders and goalkeepers? Klopp himself doesn’t seem bothered with all that caper. Maybe we should do likewise. I would encourage our three exotic spearheads to dust off some old tapes and DVDs and do what Liverpudlians do best – rate their rapid selves against their forebears and hope they turn out the best.
“Forget not the past, for in the future it may help you grow.” Or, just leg it dead fast and stick it in the onion bag.