Pre-season is always a strange time for a football fan.
If your team does well, it is easy to get carried away heading into the new campaign. If your team doesn’t do so well, it doesn’t really matter as it is only pre-season.
So far, Liverpool’s pre-season has been a bit of a mix.
The Reds have notched eight goals across two matches with all five first-team attackers finding the back of the net. However, Jurgen Klopp has watched on as his side conceded a combined six goals to Karlsruher and Furth. Add in the fact the 2019/20 Premier League champions also conceded four goals against Southampton on the final day of the 2022/23 campaign and it isn’t pretty viewing.
In this piece, though, we’re going to focus on the goings-on in the final third. Why focus on the negative when there’s something to be positive about?
Liverpool may have faced off against inferior opposition but the signs have been encouraging. For example, Diogo Jota and Cody Gakpo appear to have struck up an understanding while Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez are once again on the same page.
The latter two combined for the opener against Karlsruher before Jota and Gakpo traded assists with one another. Salah twice assisted Darwin in the 4-4 draw with Furth before the new number nine set up the number 11 for the late equaliser.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 25, 2023
All eight of the goals scored by the Reds have come via one of the attackers. If this continues, Klopp is soon going to have a bit of a selection headache as we head into the new season.
Salah is guaranteed a start on the right side of the attack while it looks likely that Luis Diaz, the club’s new number seven, is going to claim the left-wing berth as his own. It leaves Jota, Darwin and Gakpo all fighting it out for the centre-forward position.
All have varied profiles too which means they aren’t necessarily in direct competition. Instead, Klopp can treat it like a horses-for-courses type situation, leaning on a different player for different scenarios.
Having said that though, there needs to be a first-choice striker. All of the very best teams have an undisputed starter leading the line.
So who should be the main man in attack for Liverpool this season? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each.
Jota is an elite chance-getter. Since moving to Anfield, he has averaged 3.29 shots per 90 and has an Expected Goals per 90 average of 0.58. For a bit of context here, Salah has averaged 3.97 shots per 90 in the Premier League since joining the Merseyside club in 2017 and he has a Non-Penalty Expected Goals average of 0.58.
So Jota is a similar sort of goal threat to Salah but he’s averaging fewer shots.
Granted, Jota isn’t anywhere near as reliable in terms of availability having missed large chunks of the 2020/21 and 2022/23 campaigns. Something else to note here is that the former Wolves attacker has been moved around the team to facilitate for others.
Despite this, he’s continued to be a reliable outlet in the final third. He’s also, quite easily, the most two-footed player in the Liverpool attack and this unpredictability makes him even more dangerous. He’s taken 171 shots for the Reds in the Premier League and 29% of them came via his left foot, 45% via his right foot and 26% via his head. That varied finishing gives him an edge over others in the sense he often only needs half a chance to make something happen.
You only have to watch his goal against Spurs to realise it.
Darwin is still a bit of an enigma.
The 24-year-old finished his debut Premier League season with nine goals from just 1,702 minutes. At a glance, it was an impressive return. However, his Expected Goals haul for the campaign was 14.37 and this highlights a considerable underperformance in the finishing department. He was also heavily reliant on volume too, averaging 4.44 shots per 90 in the English top-flight.
The former Benfica menace was getting into good areas, as highlighted by his shot map below, but he wasn’t converting the opportunities falling his way.
And given his overall play isn’t as sharp as others in the team, the focus was well and truly on his ability to put the ball into the back of the net. His failure to do so meant he was sacrificed after the turn of the year. First, he was shunted out to the left side to accommodate the arrival of Gakpo. Then he lost his place in the starting XI after Jota and Diaz returned to fitness.
Darwin has looked more composed in the pre-season matches and with the signings of Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, his lack of technical ability in the build-up might not matter and he could force his way into Klopp’s thinking due to his ability to create things out of nothing in and around the penalty area.
He is chaos personified.
Gakpo is more of a Roberto Firmino clone.
He arrived having impressed for PSV as a left-winger before quickly making the false-nine spot his own in this Liverpool team. He wasn’t a high-volume shooter, averaging just 2.3 shots per 90 but he was still a goal threat, finishing the season with an Expected Goals average of 0.4.
His value to this team was more to do with what he could do in the build-up. The problem with the Reds earlier in the season was that they couldn’t make the ball stick in the final third and it meant they kept getting hit on the break. Gakpo was very efficient at knitting play together and filling gaps between the midfield and the attack, thus making it much more difficult for opponents to counter.
Gakpo is still a goalscorer but he does appear to be more of a facilitator too. It is no surprise he pairs nicely with Jota in the final third as the Portuguese forward likes to cut inside and attack the space created by the versatile Dutchman.
Such diverse options are a blessing and a curse.
The dynamic differs with each of them and Klopp needs a level of consistency to help with performances.