Last weekend felt like the hump. If Liverpool could just get out of that Everton match with three points and no big injuries, they could finally breathe easy, knowing that the remainder of their schedule was weak and well-spaced enough to form a clear path to the top four and a Champions League spot, a fine result given how fiercely competitive the Premier League has been this season. Liverpool did get their big win in the Merseyside derby, but at the same time added Sadio Mané to their long injury list. Now, what should have been a waltz to the finish could turn into a struggle.
Mané was subbed off in the 57th minute of the Everton match after hurting his knee. The club still doesn’t have a good read on the full extent of the damage, since Mané’s knee is still too swollen for a conclusive scan, but it doesn’t look good. Or, “Not very positive,” as manager Jürgen Klopp put it today in a press conference.
Klopp ruled Mané out for tomorrow’s match against Bournemouth, and was cautious about speculating just how long Liverpool’s only world-class player will be out. A reporter asked him if Mané might miss the rest of the season, which Klopp said was possible but still too early to tell. At any rate, it appears likely that Mané will be out for at least a few weeks. That could prove a huge blow for Liverpool’s Champions League aspirations.
The Reds are already without the services of surefire starters Jordan Henderson (who has been out for nearly two months already, though he might be only a week or so away from returning to the pitch) and Adam Lallana (who strained his thigh during the international break and will probably miss about a month). With Mané gone too for at least the short-to-medium-term, the team will find it hard to put out a lineup capable of playing in the same style that has seen them fly so high at their peak this season.
Lallana’s injury sucks because he’s the fulcrum of Klopp’s system. His creative passing and patience on the ball are even more crucial to Liverpool’s chances against the smaller teams they for some reason struggle against and that litter their remaining schedule. Mané’s absence hurts not only because he is so good, but also because he is their only goal-scoring winger who threatens defenses with his runs in behind, which open up space for the likes of Lallana and Philippe Coutinho to bob and flit their way through the defense. Henderson is a big loss because of how his athleticism and range of passing allows the more advanced players to bomb forward with abandon in attack and press high and hard when defending, at all times comfortable with the knowledge that Henderson will be sitting back ready to stomp out any counter attacks should they arise, and then ping a ball back out to them to restart the attack. Those three players’ positions and roles in midfield and on the wing are some of the most important facet’s of Liverpool’s way of playing, and they’re also the positions where the team doesn’t have many alternatives.
In the short term, then, Liverpool will probably look a lot like they did finishing out the Everton match. Lucas Leiva in defensive midfield, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can in central midfield, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the wings, and Divock Origi as striker. Henderson’s strength, quickness, and passing and Lallana’s creativity will be missing from this midfield, and the forward line will lack Mané’s movement and goals. On top of that, Firmino—a very good, hard-working, and versatile striker—never plays all that well when starting out wide. And if any of the others get hurt, Liverpool’s remaining bench options consist entirely of untested youngsters and the perma-injured Daniel Sturridge.
Still, even a short-handed Liverpool lineup is pretty strong. Origi is different from both Firmino and Mané, but he is still consistently good when he does get onto the pitch. He should thrive with the additional minutes he’s in line for. Coutinho is coming off probably his best game since he came back from injury in the middle of the season, and has the skill and ability to drag the club to what would be a hugely impressive top four finish. If Coutinho really is the burgeoning superstar his biggest fans make him out to be, and the one he himself shows glimpses of being but never in a consistent enough manner, then now is the time for him to prove it.
And again, Liverpool’s remaining fixtures are a relative breeze: Bournemouth, Stoke, West Brom, Crystal Palace, Watford, Southampton, West Ham, and Middlesbrough. Even if Henderson and Lallana miss half of those games and Mané all of them, they should still find a way to hold on to one of the Champions League places. It’s not for nothing that Five Thirty Eight puts the Reds’ top four chances at 81 percent.
The Klopp-Liverpool project is one of the most fascinating ones in a league lousy with intriguing manager-club dynamics. Here is one of the most revered managers in the world, the guy who took what was firmly Germany’s No. 2 team and made them champions multiple times over, trying to pull off a similar trick in even tougher circumstances. How he and the club build on this successful year—the kinds of players they can attract and which (if any) of the current roster they lose—how high they can take this wildly entertaining style of play, and whether this energy-intensive philosophy can survive in England are just some of the tantalizing questions Liverpool pose. It’s quite likely that the answers will be determined in large part on whether or not Liverpool finish in the top four this season. Hopefully they’ll play well enough now to ensure themselves their brightest possible future going forward.