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04th Apr 2017

Jurgen Klopp names unlikely candidate to replace injured Sadio Mané

He's doing grand where he is

Tony Barrett

Jurgen Klopp has three players in mind to replace the injured Sadio Mané.

When summer comes, Jurgen Klopp maintains, Liverpool will be ready, able and willing to address the weaknesses that he has identified during his first full season in charge.

For now, though, with three months to go before the transfer window opens, the solutions must come from within and the absence of Sadio Mane through injury means Klopp must find a way of solving a problem that he was unable to the last time that the winger was unavailable.

If, on the one hand, Liverpool’s inability thus far to win a Premier League game when Mane is not available (their win rate in all competitions also goes down from 67.9% to 27.3% when he isn’t in the team) is an obvious negative, the extent of the winger’s influence since signing from Southampton last summer is an undoubted positive.

It is largely forgotten now, but at the time when Liverpool agreed to pay £30 million for his services the deal was widely criticised with both the value of the transfer and Mane’s consistency being questioned.

Now, nine months on, Mane is Liverpool’s top scorer, arguably their best performer and has established himself as one of the best pieces of transfer business the club has done in recent times. The issue is, they struggle without him, as underlined by the startling drop off in form during January when Mane was on Africa Nations Cup duty with Senegal.

That run of poor results undermined Liverpool’s title challenge and with Klopp willing to concede that he does not have “a one for one replacement” for Mane, there are fears that a similar stutter while the 24-year-old is out injured could weaken their bid to finish in the top four.

Liverpool do not yet know how long they will be without Mane – the swelling on a knee injury sustained during Saturday’s Merseyside derby victory over Everton delayed a scan that will determine both the extent of the damage and how much time he will spend on the sidelines – but recent experience suggests that if it is months rather than weeks the risk of their objective not being achieved will grow. Klopp, of course, cannot afford to harbour such thoughts and has instead set himself the challenge of finding the player or players and possibly the system that can allow Liverpool to cope in his absence.

“My job is to find solutions,” the Liverpool manager said.

“This is a good situation: we have 59 points, we are in a nice position. Yes, a few teams have played less games than we have but they cannot win them all because they have to play each other.

“The whole season is to prepare the finish and this is the finishing part of the season. Eight games to go. We expect results from ourselves, we want to fight for everything. A few key players are not available at the moment but as long as we have 11 players to start and a few to bring on everything is fine.”

In that respect, Bournemouth’s visit to Anfield could not be any more timely. It was against Eddie Howe’s side last December that Liverpool’s growing reliance on Mane was first made glaringly apparent. Leading 3-1 with 21 minutes remaining, the former Southampton player was forced off after taking a knock and Liverpool collapsed, losing 4-3 in one of the most memorable games of the season so far. If that was an extreme, what followed in January indicated that the views of those who believed Mane was crucial to the way Liverpool play were not misplaced, although Klopp insists that drop off in form was due to a combination of factors rather than the loss of one individual.

“The big problem in January was not only Sadio missing; everyone would miss Sadio,” Klopp said. “Southampton probably still miss him, Red Bull Salzburg miss him. It was such a hard moment in January. We had these games, it was not the freshest moment of the season. Then missing Sadio in the shape he was, plus missing Phil (Coutinho), was not perfect.

“It is not about thinking ‘How can we play perfect football?’ We need to get results and the first thing I will think about is how we can defend (against) Bournemouth not how can we create 27 chances? If we are strong and perfectly organised in defence then Bournemouth cannot get confidence in the game. We don’t think what we miss, we only think what we can do to win this football game.

“As a manager I can’t really remember the last time I had all the players available and the decisions to make weren’t really difficult. The only job to do is play the best you are able to and not who you miss. We have the possibility to change formation. I am not sure we can line up similar to the last game but we have different options: we can bring in young boys, we can bring in experience up front, Milly (James Milner) can play on the wing.

“There are a lot of different things but do we miss Sadio? Yes. Do we miss Adam Lallana? Yes. Do we miss Jordan Henderson? Yes. But they are not for this game because they are not here.”

Considering Milner is doing so well at left back, one can not imagine him being shifted up the park.

If the obvious change for Klopp to make would be to do what he did in January by adapting his formation to deploy Divock Origi as a central attacker and move Roberto Firmino out wide, the more adventurous one would be to retain his existing shape and use teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold in Mane’s wide attacking role.

In terms of skill set, not to mention retaining as much continuity as possible, that would make a lot of sense as, like Mane, the 18-year-old is blessed with searing pace and is willing to attack defenders at every opportunity. But while Klopp doubts neither his ability nor his temperament, he is unsure whether Alexander-Arnold is totally ready to fill the void created by Mane’s latest absence, particularly after an exacting spell on international duty with England under-19s and a late cameo against Everton.

“Trent is a wonderful player. We are really happy to have him here,” Klopp said.

“The international break for him was really intense. He was not tired, but you could see they did a lot. And when he came on the pitch (against Everton), he had two good moments. So yes, we know about his qualities. As an offensive full-back, that’s really good to see. He has to improve in defence from the full-back position, but with his speed, he can play a little bit higher up of course. But there you have to defend. That’s how it is.”

“He’s not used to the position too much,” the German continued. “You could see it in one or two situations. He’s 18 years old, he’s used to playing full-back, so he makes a step back that makes no sense in this specific situation. When he plays on my side, I think we could manage it. If he plays on the other side, even my voice is not loud enough to do it. But we are really happy to have him. Like I said, we need all players in this last part of the season, and he is one of these players.”

As things stand, Klopp’s concern that when the scan results are made available his worst fears will be confirmed and Mane will be ruled out for the rest of the season means the Liverpool manager will have ample opportunity to find a way to thrive without him. But he will also know that with so much at stake this is not the ideal time for trial and error because results are paramount. “Never in the season did I think that somebody would make us a present at the end of the season and say: ‘Surprise! You’re going to play in the Champions League next year,’ Klopp added. “So we have to fight for it. We have to prove the quality.” They also have to prove that they can cope without Mane.

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