In Depth

Mane, Firmino and Coutinho make Liverpool title contenders

Trio have slain opposition defences this season and made Jurgen Klopp's side almost unstoppable - for now

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has tried to quell the excitement surrounding his team after they thrashed Watford 6-1 to go top of the Premier League on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the Reds' performances in recent weeks have seen them emerge as genuine title contenders in the eyes of many observers.

Central to this resurgence are Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, together with Adam Lallana.

Under Klopp, Liverpool have been operating without a traditional centre-forward, as Daniel Sturridge and Christian Benteke found out to their cost.

And the penny is starting to drop in the press box as well.

"At first few of us could understand why Daniel Sturridge could not get a game for Liverpool," says Alistair Tweedale of the Daily Telegraph. "It is now starting to become clear why Jurgen Klopp was leaving him out: his team don't need a centre-forward."

Tweedale focuses on the impact of Mane, the £34m summer arrival who scored twice against Southampton and could turn out to be the "bargain of the summer".

He adds: "While adding another quick, tricky and dynamic element to the Liverpool front line – as well as constant movement that creates space for the others – Mane carries as much of a goal threat as any of his team-mates."

Although nominally the right-winger, "like each of Klopp's front three he roams all over the pitch, constantly swapping positions in a way that makes them almost impossible to track".

Mane will be key to Liverpool's title hunt. "If he can keep combining with Coutinho and Firmino as he has done of late, they will be very difficult to stop indeed," says Tweedale.

Paul Joyce of The Times says Mane's recruitment was "a result of Liverpool looking to add pace and flexibility to their front three and followed... [an] exhaustive scouting process".

He adds: "It is no coincidence that Liverpool have assembled a flexible front line that does not boast an identikit number nine."

As for Firmino, Joyce says Liverpool have been interested in him since he was 15. He was finally signed in 2015, aged 23, after being watched dozens of times by Liverpool scouts at his former club Hoffenheim.

His arrival was hugely significant for Liverpool's fortunes, adds the journalist: "While [former manager] Brendan Rodgers had to be convinced to take the player... the forward's presence was one of the reasons Klopp was enticed by the prospect of breaking his sabbatical and stepping back into management.

Joyce says: "It was in the game away to Chelsea last November that Klopp used Firmino in a central role for the first time, with Coutinho and Lallana in support, and it has remained his favourite formation.

Andy Hunter of The Guardian agrees, saying the versatile Brazilian "encapsulates the change and improvement that Klopp has overseen at Liverpool".

He adds: "His pressing, passing and movement are fundamental to Liverpool’s formidable attacking play."

Coutinho, meanwhile has scored or set up a goal roughly every 84 minutes in the league this season, says Nick Miller of ESPN.

"For context, Kevin De Bruyne has managed that every 95 minutes, Eden Hazard every 115, Alexis Sanchez every 101. The only two players to have a better rate than Coutinho are Diego Costa with 81, and Romelu Lukaku with a shade under 84," he continues.

"But you don't need to bother with statistics to appreciate Coutinho, just to watch him. His is a delicate form of grace, a man who plays on his tiptoes and in sport that seems to be dominated by physicality rather than simply skill, he stands out."

Between them, Lallana, Mane, Firmino and Coutinho have propelled Liverpool to the top of the table in some style. And while no-one is prepared to crown Liverpool champions just yet, it is clear they are in with a shout.

Klopp claimed nothing had happened when Liverpool went top at the weekend, but Andy Hunter of the Guardian disagrees.

He says: "What has happened is nine wins in the last ten games, the only disruption to that sequence coming from a Manchester United team whose overriding function at Anfield was to stop Firmino, Coutinho, Mane, Adam Lallana and co. Everyone else is struggling for a solution at present."

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