There is a popular cliche in football that if you are standing still, you are going backwards. It alludes to the fact that time never stands still; and that football, like other sports, is cyclical.
In industry, continuous improvement principles are applied: just because something is working well, it doesn’t mean it will always remain the case or cannot be improved upon. It is under constant review, with adaptations or changes implemented where necessary, be they process, structural or mechanical.
In football, it’s much the same with players, systems, tactics and managers. Just because a team is successful now, it doesn’t mean they will continue to be if the team and its methods never alter.
For Liverpool, this dates back to Bill Shankly. The team that won him promotion back to the top flight, a league title and much desired FA Cup could not go on forever. Shankly was fiercely loyal to the stalwarts of his first great team, but the realisation came that they had aged and needed replacing. In came the likes of Ray Clemence, Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway and Kevin Keegan; gone were Tommy Lawrence, Ron Yeats, Ian St.John and Roger Hunt.
Even club legends cannot play forever. In order for the club to remain successful, sentiment cannot prevail.
Bob Paisley was a master of it. Piece by piece, his teams evolved during his nine years of unprecedented success. Just compare the Liverpool team that won the 1977 European Cup with the one that won it for a third time in 1981.
For Jürgen Klopp, his evolution as a coach is probably one of his more understated qualities. You’d have to be blind to think he is the same coach now as the one that seduced the footballing world with his ‘heavy metal football’ at Borussia Dortmund.
Aside from the change in shape and adaptation of pressing frequency, there has been a move towards more control in possession. The signing of Thiago was an important step in the evolution of control. Although we are still in the early throes of the season and injury has impacted his involvement, we have already witnessed the different dimension Thiago brings to Liverpool.
By no means do I believe this will, or should, be the final evolution of Klopp’s team. The centre-forward role within this side is one that cannot escape scrutiny or be immune from evolution.
Lionel Messi may have been the first forward to be labelled as a ‘false nine’, but Roberto Firmino redefined it. Under Klopp, he has been integral to the function and success of the team. His contributions on and off the ball have often been difficult to quantify. His pressing and movement as important as any of his passes, samba skills or goals.
Sadly, whilst his off the ball contributions continue, his form on the ball has been of growing concern over the past 12 months. As with those that have come before them in the famous red shirt, the much-fabled front three cannot be expected to last forever. Firmino is the oldest of the trio, having turned 29 in early October.
By no means is he finished. He still has plenty left in the tank and his attributes mean he has more to offer than just the centre-forward position. His place as an automatic-starter must be up for debate though.
To find a like-for-like replacement would be almost impossible, such is the uniqueness of Firmino. What must be considered, is the evolution of the centre-forward role within the team.
As opponents have been able to study Liverpool and develop ways to stop them, so Liverpool must pose new problems. In the words of Rowdy Roddy Piper, “just when you think you have all the answers, I change the questions”.
An ideal candidate for this role stands at 6 feet 4 inches tall and is just 20 years of age. Erling Braut Haaland of Borussia Dortmund, the newly crowned winner of the 2020 Golden Boy award. His imposing physical presence is backed up with the pace and acceleration of a winger. As with any top striker, he has an insatiable appetite for goals and is fiercely ambitious.
It would be wrong to simply pigeon-hole him as a goal-scoring target man. His movement and intelligence have helped him strike up a successful understanding with Jadon Sancho, Julian Brandt and Gio Reyna at Dortmund. Haaland’s height would be useful at defending set-pieces. In turn, his pace for the potential counter-attacks, something he has demonstrated during his time in yellow and black.
His recent four-goal return against Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga was an example of what he offers. A poachers instinct, a deadly left foot and the ability to sniff out an opportunity to punish any defensive error.
Haaland’s tender age does mean the sample size of his stats are limited. However, his shot to goal conversion rate is incredibly high and compares favourably with any top striker around Europe. It’s certainly higher than any of the Liverpool front three. Like Mo Salah, Haaland shoots frequently, but with an accuracy that is consistently above 50%.
Becoming more clinical in front of goal is definitely an area for Liverpool to improve. In terms of shot to goal conversion ratio, the Reds sit mid-table and are underperforming their xG. Being more clinical can not only win more points, but can also potentially aid the managing of otherwise tight games.
As Klopp’s Liverpool have evolved over the past few seasons, with less focus on pressing and more on control, perhaps the change in centre-forward role is a natural progression. Erling Haaland would not be cheap, but his age and talent would justify a sizeable investment. He is a force of nature and could be the ideal candidate for the next step in this Liverpool team’s evolution.