Klopp’s Forward Selection Dilemma
Jürgen Klopp has five excellent senior forwards at his disposal, from which he must choose three to take the berths in the Liverpool attack. This gives him 10 potential trios that he can utilise.
The Maths Behind the Choices
Except that this is the maths of the situation, the theory behind his choices. It assumes that all options are equally likely, when in reality Mohamed Salah has the right-forward job nailed down. The Egyptian is the fifth highest scorer in club history and has appeared in 220 of the 230 league games the Reds have played since his arrival, which is a handy combination of attendance and output to have on your CV when trying to get selected.
Were it not for the Cup of Nations, Salah’s appearance hit rate would be higher still. It leaves Klopp with a different puzzle, selecting two from four in one of their six possible combinations for the two positions alongside number 11.
Díaz and Jota: An Emerging Duo
In the opening two games of 2023/24, the Reds’ boss selected Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota, a pairing with relatively little experience of playing together. With 66 minutes at Stamford Bridge and 76 against Bournemouth, the last two matches have gone into their top seven longest combined appearances.
While neither has yet officially assisted the other, they effectively broke their combined duck against the Cherries. Jota carried the ball into the Anfield Road end penalty box and tried to find Díaz, though it took a deflection on the pass for it to reach the Colombian. It didn’t matter, though, as the link-up of former Porto players paid off thanks to a fabulous finish from Díaz.
Past Performances and Link-Ups
Diaz and Jota didn’t link up at Stamford Bridge but that was hardly a surprise as they rarely have in the past. None of the four previous opportunities they collectively fashioned in the Premier League was either worth more than 0.1 expected goals nor put on target. Their shared injury woes in 2022/23 meant there was just one such chance last season, and that on the final day (Díaz to Jota, 0.07 xG, blocked).
But at Chelsea, it didn’t matter. Salah assisted Diaz instead, the goal giving Liverpool the lead. It was only the second time they’ve combined, the first occurring in the 4-0 Anfield victory over Manchester United in April 2022. Their link-up has been more productive than Lucho and Diogo, though, with 17 chances at an average of 0.12 xG amassed in the league prior to 2023/24.
The Trio’s Potential
As nine of Jota’s 15 Liverpool assists have been for Salah, they clearly work well together. The question is whether they work well when Díaz joins to make them a trio; the evidence is promising.
Their only start prior to this season occurred against Ajax at Anfield last season, a match the Reds won 2-1 thanks to a late goal from Joël Matip. It was Salah who got the opener, with Jota picking up the assist after he had received the ball from Díaz.
It feels like this sort of goal was a regular occurrence for the legendary front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Salah. However, that wasn’t really the case. They frequently assisted each other, no question, but moves for goals which featured each member of the trio applying the final three actions were surprisingly rare. Liverpool only scored 15 such goals between 2015/16 and 2021/22 and some of them included Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge in place of one of the most hallowed three.
Recent Matches and Formations
The Díaz-Jota-Salah triumvirate then started against Rangers and Arsenal, except that they were stationed behind Darwin Núñez in a 4-2-3-1 system. In the former match, Lucho was fouled for the penalty from which Salah scored, while at the Emirates stadium, Díaz and Jota collected assists for Darwin and Firmino (who came on after the Colombian was injured).
Fast forward to Liverpool’s 103rd and final goal of last season and what do you find? Díaz passing to Salah who then played in Jota to bag an equaliser in a ridiculous 4-4 draw at Southampton. Goals have the inherent confirmation bias of being, you know, goals, but the limited evidence bodes well for the front three with which Klopp has embarked upon 2023/24.
He may change it up for the trip to Newcastle, with Núñez and Gakpo both having scored in the corresponding fixture last season. It’s tantalising to think what the other three forwards can deliver if played together more often though.