Graham Ruthven: Worrying signs from Liverpool’s holy trinity at Arsenal

Liverpool fell behind Manchester City in the Premier League yesterday and Graham Ruthven feels the front three are off the pace…

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Had luck been on his side, Virgil Van Dijk could have finished Saturday’s game against Arsenal with a hat-trick.

The Liverpool centre back saw a point-blank volley saved, another effort come back off the post and a free header flash just wide when he probably should have found the back of the net. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, on the other hand, failed to even register a single shot on target between them.

Indeed, of all the attacking talent Liverpool had on the pitch at the Emirates Stadium, Van Dijk recorded the highest xG value (0.39), essentially meaning the Dutch defender was their most potent threat.

This was illustrative of a frustrating evening for Jurgen Klopp’s side, dropping two points when they might have expected more.

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Of course, as an isolated instance this isn’t anything for Klopp and co. to be overly concerned about.

But this isn’t the first time that Liverpool’s front three have been kept under wraps this season, with the form of Firmino particularly flat, finding the net just twice in 11 appearances for the Reds.

Salah’s form has also been scrutinised, with the Egyptian taking time to find his groove after a fragmented end to last season and summer through injury.

Mane is currently Liverpool’s top scorer, with six goals for the season, and even he could be accused of being wasteful in front of goal at times.

Klopp’s front three aren’t yet firing on all cylinders.

And yet despite this the Reds find themselves just two points off the top of the Premier League table having already played Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal away from home, and Manchester City at Anfield.

This is largely down to the progress made in other areas of the pitch, with Liverpool keeping six clean sheets in their first 11 league fixtures so far this season.

Klopp has instilled a sense of defensive stability in his side, something they undoubtedly needed to mount a genuine title challenge, but it has seemingly come at the cost of some of the exhilarating unpredictability that made them so compelling to watch, and so dangerous to play against, last term.

Some will rightly point out that Liverpool’s front three have still managed to notch 13 times this season, matching the tally recorded by the same stage of the campaign last year.

The troubles experienced in the weekend’s draw against Arsenal hardly amount to a crisis, but English football’s supposed attacking kings are currently only the Premier League’s fourth-top scorers.

At times last season, Liverpool’s tempo and intensity made them irrepressible – see their two home wins over Man City – and yet they were bettered in this regard by Arsenal at the Emirates.

Their high pressing game wasn’t quite so high, with the Gunners the ones forcing their opponents into mistakes on the ball.

Fabinho was targeted in a way that exposed the Brazilian’s struggle to adapt to Klopp-ball and Arsenal restricted Liverpool’s front three to just 64 passes in the final third of the pitch.

They did this through old fashioned energy and willingness to carry out Unai Emery’s game plan. Last season, it was Liverpool who were playing in this manner.

Potentially, it could be that Liverpool have simply become a different sort of team over the past few months. The additions of Van Dijk and Alisson Becker, as well as the emergence of Georginio Wijnaldum as a key figure, have made them a more rounded outfit, and so they are no longer so reliant on Firmino, Mane and Salah to get them through games.

It might also be that Liverpool and their front three are still being held to the standard set in the second half of last season, a standard that was never likely to be sustainable going forward.

Firmino, Mane and Salah might never hit those sort of heights again.

That could be held against them if Liverpool’s season turns out not to be as glorious as hoped.

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