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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Liverpool have Salah, Mane and Firmino succession plan, but only special formula can help FSG

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By common consent, Liverpool may need to look at adding another attacker to the squad this summer, after they opted against major additions last year. Finances will be rightly scrutinised before any move is made, given the element of uncertainty around matches and fans and other areas of club income, but other elements of the club’s recruitment process will remain constant.

In part, that relates to looking at certain statistical criteria which indicates a player is performing at a level which can be either sustained or improved upon, and is doing so at a level which could contribute to the current reigning champions of Europe and, soon enough, the Premier League title-holders.

Liverpool’s much-admired front three are heralded as key to Jürgen Klopp’s team because they all contribute in terms of goalscoring and chance creation to such a high level, so who else can match them for regular output?

To establish who might be of interest and who has a big impact in the final third, we can look at two combined measures of a player’s productivity: Expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes of action, excluding penalties to avoid overweighting scoring bias in those who take spot-kicks.

This metric (NPxG90+xA90 for short) shows the values for this season from Mohamed Salah (0.81), Roberto Firmino(0.79) and Sadio Mane (0.72) are all among the Premier League’s elite — so we’ve looked for others who have played at least 900 minutes of league action (10 full games) and score at least 0.70 for their own NPxG90+xA90 in 2019/20.

Premier League

Only five players rank above Salah in England – and they are all from rivals Manchester City.

Sergio Aguero (1.03) and Gabriel Jesus (1.01) both average a quite astonishing expected goal or assist each and every game, while Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne are all between 0.8 and 0.9 per 90, highlighting perhaps why City have netted the most goals in the league. But the Reds won’t be realistically looking at anyone from their rivals to sign, so it’s worth looking at the others around the Premier League.

Bournemouth’s Lys Mousset (0.74) is the surprise name next in line, with his score almost evenly split between scoring himself and teeing up a team-mate. The aforementioned Mahrez is the only one of the ‘forwards’ who actually has a greater xA90 than xG90, but Mousset’s contribution is remarkably well-rounded for a No. 9. Chelsea duo Tammy Abraham (0.74), Christian Pulisic (0.71) and Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin (0.70) also hit the threshold, though none are potential recruits for the Reds.

La Liga

Spain’s top flight offers no potential targets of interest.

It will surprise precisely zero people to learn that Lionel Messi is off the charts here, weighing in with 1.08, higher than any other player across Spain, Italy, England and Germany. Former Red Luis Suarez (0.77) is just above Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema (0.76) and Atletico Madrid’s Alvaro Morata (0.75), while only Getafe’s Angel Rodriguez (0.71) makes the cut outside the big three teams. He’s 33 and the others aren’t leaving their clubs.

The one additional name who features has already moved on: Karl Toko Ekambi, who registered 0.86 with Villarrreal in the first half of the season, but who has since been loaned and signed permanently by Lyon in France — so let’s see if his form has continued there next…

Ligue 1

PSG have an embarrassment of riches.

It doesn’t. In fairness he has been in and out of the team and playing from the left rather than up front, but Toko Ekambi is down to 0.54 over the part-curtailed second half of the season in France.

A handful of Paris Saint-Germain players rank extremely highly, naturally given their dominance, but far beyond Neymar, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi is the much-admired Kylian Mbappe, an absolute monster performer at 1.61 expected goals or assists per 90 minutes on the pitch. Little wonder, really, the Reds and every other major, big-spending club would love to get their hands on him — he essentially ‘guarantees’ three goals scored or created every two games.

Islam Slimani (0.92) is a non-starter for style and age, but Wissam Ben Yedder (0.78) is an interesting final candidate who has recently been linked with Liverpool. His split almost precisely mirrors that of Salah, with an xG of 0.61 and his xA at 0.26 per 90. He’s much more of a central player than Salah tends to be, but Ben Yedder has played as both a 9 and a 10 and averages 1.85 key passes per game, highlighting his well-rounded traits in the final third.

Serie A

Over to Italy, we can immediately rule out a few who meet the threshold: Edin Dzeko, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain are iconic names, but utterly unsuited to Klopp teams and too old, settled or expensive. Josip Ilicic (1.01) is an absolute handful as a forward, but he’s also 32. The only reasonable suggestions are Arkadiusz Milik (0.83) of Napoli and Atalanta pair Duvan Zapata (1.06) and Luis Muriel (0.88), both of whom have historical links with Liverpool. Again, though, both are 29 and unlikely targets.

Polish striker Milik has had an injury-hit campaign, but is a prolific marksman when fit and in form. He’s very much a centre-forward in a different mould to Firmino, which makes him unlikely to suit Klopp’s needs.

Bundesliga

Purposely left until last, Germany’s top flight offers no fewer than 36 names with an NPxG90+xA90 of higher than 0.7. The top six can sadly be excluded: Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Thomas Muller aren’t leaving Bayern, Jadon Sancho is out of reach this summer, Erling Haaland has just signed for Dortmund and Timo Werner has agreed to join Chelsea. There are three others in particular to consider from the initial list.

Marcus Thuram of Borussia Monchengladbach has impressed both from the flanks and through the centre, netting 10 goals and providing eight assists in the Bundesliga. He weighs in with 0.77 NPxG90+xA90 from 2,225 minutes of play, which suggests he is marginally underperforming with his actual output.

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Given the number of extremely presentable chances he has missed this season – his movement is great but his finishing erratic – it’s arguable that with a little more composure and maturity in his game, he could easily be posting far higher numbers and is very much one to watch over the coming seasons. He turns 23 this summer.

Secondly, Patrik Schick weighs in just below at 0.75. In normal circumstances he wouldn’t be a consideration, given he is at Leipzig on loan from Roma, but the German side have said they will not make the deal permanent given the financial uncertainty in football at present.

That option was for €29million, so the Czech striker’s price is largely set in stone. His numbers are rather Firmino-esque, too: 0.55 xG90 to the Brazilian’s 0.56 and 0.20 xA90 to Firmino’s 0.23. Klopp would perhaps have a deal of work to do on the striker in terms of the areas where he drops deep and looks to link up, but he has joined in the press in Julian Nagelsmann’s attack in reasonable fashion during 2020 and could surely be improved further in that regard.

Finally, one familiar name which appears is Philippe Coutinho (0.81), weighing in with almost identical numbers to Salah: 0.59 xG90 and 0.28 xA90 to Mo’s 0.62 and 0.29. But that one seems a way off…

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