Just after full-time at Anfield on Saturday, the PA announcer declared to the departing masses that Liverpool were top of the Premier League. It was slightly premature — their 2-1 win over West Brom had put them level on points yet a goal behind Arsenal — but the giddiness was understandable.
This is some way from being a perfect Liverpool side. They still have some troubling problems when it comes to set pieces: West Brom’s goal on Saturday was the 17th they’ve conceded from a set-piece in the year since Jurgen Klopp arrived. Only Swansea have let in more. They were also a little too close to throwing two points away from a dominant performance, a jittery 15 minutes toward the end, giving West Brom a sniff they should not have been allowed.
But for the fans, that was all relatively easy to briefly forget, instead bathing as they did in the brilliance of their attacking quartet. There is not a traditional centre-forward among Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, Phillipe Coutinho and Sadio Mane, but those four have scored 14 of Liverpool’s 16 nonpenalty goals this season. What’s more, eight of those 14 strikes have been set up by another of the foursome.
Those are merely the dry statistics, though. What’s even more impressive about this front four deployed by Klopp is how they dovetail, moving almost as one and switching positions at will, shifting the ball between them superbly and making the most of whatever space they can find. This is a four-headed attacking hydra, ducking and dipping around and sniping so much that opposition defences are left with heads spinning.
“Their front five is as good as any in the league,” said Tony Pulis on Saturday, adding Emre Can to the gang.
Mane’s goal on Saturday was a perfect example of what a fine unit they have so quickly become, a Coutinho dummy creating space for Emre Can, who fed Firmino, and his cross was converted with the utmost efficiency at the back post. “We tried to move between the lines,” said Mane after the game. “It was a pass from Emre to Firmino, and because we know each other, it’s easy for me to wait for the ball … and I just put it in.”
Largely thanks to this undulating four-way strike-force, Liverpool have 20 goals from their nine Premier League games, a total only matched by Manchester City. All of which means it doesn’t really matter that Daniel Sturridge, the most natural finisher at the club, hasn’t been missed at all.
Sturridge hasn’t scored in the league yet this season, with his two goals confined to the 5-0 League Cup win over Burton. He has always been (and probably always will be) something of an enigma. His natural ability is blindingly obvious, but where he fits into teams, particularly this Liverpool side, seems far less clear. His movement is often good and imaginative but less intense than Firmino and others. With the ball, his (understandable) instinct is to shoot rather than looking for a better-placed colleague. He is sometimes an individual not quite in step with the collective.
Liverpool don’t need Sturridge in the way many teams might benefit from a finisher of his calibre, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has no use for them. At times on Saturday, one got the impression that the front four were almost too impressed with their own quality and that they would have benefited from a more straightforward forward to apply a killer finish.
Also, Klopp has spoken not just about Sturridge’s individual quality but how he can fit with the group too, speaking last week about what he rated as Liverpool’s best goal of the season so far, Firmino’s first against Leicester. “It was the kind of movement that we have been working so hard on, then you see it come off,” he said. “Sturridge makes this way, out of the box, to take two defenders with him and then it opens everything. It is a sign of development.” Also in that game, Sturridge set up Mane with a smart backheel.
Clearly, the England forward still has a role to play in this Liverpool team, but what will that role be?
Sturridge left Chelsea for Liverpool because he wanted to be a main centre-forward rather than a bit-part player, but that’s exactly what it looks like he’ll be in the immediate future, at least. It’s a little ironic (although he probably won’t appreciate it) that Sturridge, for so often a semipermanent fixture in the treatment room, has been fit for most of this season but has only made four starts.
It says good things about this work-in-progress Liverpool side that a striker of Sturridge’s calibre is not in their first-choice XI. Few players do glum bench-sitting like him, slumped in his hooded sweatshirt like a grounded teenager. If Liverpool’s brilliant striking quartet continue performing as well as they have so far, it’s something we’ll be seeing much more of from Sturridge.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.