Liverpool and Manchester City recorded two of the three highest points totals in Premier League history last season, with both teams’ attacking players essential parts of their success.
City scored a record 169 goals in all competitions, with seven players reaching double figures. The Reds were also a potent force, but only three of their squad scored more than seven goals.
The 2019-20 season is only a matter of weeks away – the two teams meet in the Community Shield at Wembley on 4 August – and the Premier League is again expected to be dominated by last term’s top two.
But while City boast a depth of attacking talent like few others, Liverpool relied heavily last season on Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – all of whom are absent from their pre-season tour of the United States because of their international exploits this summer.
Does that lack of rest and preparation time leave the Reds at a disadvantage? And do they need a plan B?
A summer off? Forget about it
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has already suggested he will have to manage the return of his front three through the opening weeks of the season – a concern, surely, given that the Reds lost only once in 2018-19 and still did not win the league.
Mane’s season only finished on Friday, when Senegal lost 1-0 to Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final, 363 days after he began his pre-season training for the 2018-19 campaign.
That’s just 16 days before the Community Shield, while the European champions then have three games in nine days – including their opening Premier League match against Norwich and a Uefa Super Cup final against Europa League winners Chelsea – all of which Mane could miss.
Salah was also involved in Afcon with Egypt, while Firmino helped Brazil win the Copa America.
City, who will be aiming for a third straight league title, also have absentees from their pre-season tour of the Far East. Gabriel Jesus was alongside Firmino for Brazil, Sergio Aguero was also involved in the Copa America and Riyad Mahrez was on Afcon duty with Algeria – but their squad depth means forwards Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane have already played friendly matches.
“I don’t want to sound like a moaner, but Mane’s season has been 13 months long,” said Klopp.
“Have you ever heard of a year with 13 months in it? We need to see how we deal with it. The Brazilians finished the season on an absolute high winning two trophies. For Mo it was slightly different, but I’m constantly in contact with him and all three of them are fine.
“We have important games to come and we know pretty much which players are available. Hopefully we can go through this period without any injuries and let’s prepare the group we have around for the first couple of games. Then Sadio should be in as well and fresh enough to go again.”
Are Liverpool more reliant on their attackers than Man City?
In a word, yes.
The inevitable consequence of boasting one of world football’s deadliest attacking trios is that you want to play them whenever possible.
While City manager Pep Guardiola had the luxury of rotating his first-choice forward line of Sterling, Aguero and Bernardo Silva last season – bringing in the likes of Mahrez, Sane, Jesus and Phil Foden – Klopp only tinkered with his forward line when he absolutely had to.
The Reds depended heavily on Salah, Mane and Firmino, with the trio contributing 63% of their Premier League goals. The figure for City’s first-choice front three was much lower, at 47%.
And there must be a concern that a heavy workload last season, plus their summer matches, means Liverpool’s key players could be at risk of burnout this term.
Mane, for instance, racked up 4,306 minutes of club football last season. Only 18 outfield players in Europe’s top five leagues played more in all competitions – Salah being one of them (4,337).
The Senegalese played a further 944 minutes of international football in 10 games since August 2018.
Mane and Salah played more minutes than any City forward last season, despite Guardiola’s side still being involved in four competitions until 18 April, when they were knocked out of the Champions League by Tottenham.
City’s busiest attacker was Sterling, who clocked up 4,096 minutes, but the most games he played in a row was 10 – a stark contrast to Salah’s run of 50 consecutive appearances. City also had six forwards who played more than 2,000 minutes. Liverpool only had three, who were all way over the 3,000 mark.
Firmino may have played almost 1,000 fewer minutes than team-mate Mane but he was still more active than City’s main striker Aguero. The Brazilian added a further 500 minutes of international football at the Copa America this summer, too.
Since August 2017, Salah has played 8,457 minutes for the Reds – ranking him ninth in Europe’s top five leagues for minutes played in that period.
|Most minutes by outfield players in all competitions among Europe’s top five leagues since August 2017|
|1. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – 9,591||6. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona) – 8,503|
|2. Gerard Pique (Barcelona) – 8,824||7. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) – 8,497|
|3. Saul (Atletico Madrid) – 8,665||8. Lionel Messi (Barcelona) – 8,492|
|4. Luis Suarez (Barcelona) – 8,572||9. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 8,457|
|5. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 8,511||10. Marcelo (Real Madrid) – 8,416|
He started all but one of the 38 Premier League games last season, coming on as a substitute against Burnley in December, while Mane missed just two matches, starting 35.
Firmino was involved in 34 games, including 31 from the start, while back-up striker Divock Origi managed just 673 minutes in all competitions.
Liverpool’s front three played 12,047 minutes between them. The only game in which at least two of the three did not start was against Barcelona in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.
City’s trio of Aguero, Sterling and Silva played a lower total of 11,489 minutes, despite the domestic treble winners being involved in seven more games in the 2018-19 season (City – 60, Liverpool – 53).
Guardiola’s ability to rotate his squad was helped by the signing of Mahrez last summer – the Algerian bought from Leicester for £60m despite the fact City had just become the first Premier League team to reach 100 points.
Mahrez was the only City player in action for more than 10 consecutive games last season.
So what is Liverpool’s plan B?
BBC Sport’s Tom Rostance at Notre Dame Stadium, Indiana
With first-choice front three Salah, Mane and Firmino all missing this US trip, the 3-2 defeat by Borussia Dortmund on Friday was a chance to see Klopp’s back-up options. Or maybe the back-ups to the back-up options, given Xherdan Shaqiri is absent with a calf injury and Adam Lallana sat out the match with a dead leg.
Harry Wilson, who scored 18 goals on loan at Derby last season, started along with Ryan Kent, who impressed at Steven Gerrard’s Rangers in 2018-19. Champions League hero Origi played through the middle.
Wilson was the pick – he linked up well with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a fine early counter-attack which saw Kent denied at the far post by Dortmund keeper Marwin Hitz when he should have scored.
Wilson was then also denied when he tried to lob the keeper, before the two combined to equalise. Fabinho’s pass was dummied by Kent, Wilson took a touch and steered coolly into the far corner.
The duo combined again before half-time, Wilson finding Kent, who went around the keeper but couldn’t get a shot away.
Origi earned himself a new long-term deal with some legendary cameos on the way to Champions League glory and will surely start the season, but the question is who will be alongside him?
Could it be Rhian Brewster? The youngster, who former Liverpool player Jason McAteer told gleeful Reds fans before the game reminded him “a bit of Ian Rush, a bit of Robbie Fowler”, took his penalty brilliantly for his fourth goal in this pre-season, but was quiet apart from that in his half hour.
While this was a long way from the team that lined up in crucial games towards the end of last season, the potential absence of key players early in the season means places are up for grabs.
We will find out if anyone can press more of a claim to take one of them when Liverpool face Sevilla on Sunday.