While it’s a fantastic celebration of African football, it has to be said that the biennial Africa Cup of Nations tournament is a right royal headache for Premier League managers.
Every other January and into February, they are shorn of some of their very best players who are whisked off to represent their countries in the continent.
For Jurgen Klopp, it’s become a perennial nightmare having to consider ways to replace the irreplaceable in Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, and with the Premier League betting odds already making the Reds a 10/1 outsider to leaders Manchester City, the German knows he cannot afford to lose any more ground to the defending champions.
🚨🏆 The final three in the running to be #TheBest FIFA Men’s Player 2021!
🌍👑 Who should be crowned #TheBest in the world?
🇵🇱 @lewy_official | @pzpn_pl
🇦🇷 Lionel Messi | @Argentina
🇪🇬 @MoSalah | @EFA pic.twitter.com/1kVGi5nRZ9
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 7, 2022
But who can he turn to for some thrusting wing play?
Diogo Jota has performed so admirably in a central role that Klopp must be loathe to move him out wide – even with Bobby Firmino now fully fit.
The experiment to convert Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from a midfielder into an attacking force has not really born any fruit, while Divock Origi continues to be linked with a move away from Anfield.
So, almost by default, Klopp will turn to Takumi Minamino to fill the void. And it might not be such a bad thing…
The Japanese ace has an undoubted eye for goal, notching four times in just 301 minutes of EFL Cup action this term. That’s not bad output at all for a player who rarely gets a look in from week to week.
While the 26-year-old is not as creative as the players he might have to replace in the weeks ahead, he has still averaged a completed dribble, a key pass and three shots per 90 minutes in the EFL Cup – for context, Mane is at 1.5, 1.1 and 3.1 for those metrics in the Premier League.
Klopp has admitted that he “desperately” needs Minamino to be fit and firing, and with a chance to prove himself on the Premier League stage finally forthcoming the Japanese ace could deliver upon his undoubted promise.
An Unexpected Approach
When we consider the attacking output of Salah and Mane, a few things immediately spring to mind.
Goals, obviously, and assists, but also those other key functions in the final third of the pitch – key passes, dribbles and shots per game.
To that end, could an unlikely replacement for Salah on the right flank have emerged? There are those who doubt the defensive credentials of Trent Alexander-Arnold, and so shifting him further up the pitch may solve two headaches that Klopp has to resolve.
⚽ Most PL goals this season:
🥇 Mo Salah – 16
🥈 Diogo Jota – 10
🅰️ Most PL assists this season:
🥇 Mo Salah – 9
🥈 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 8
🌡️ Top PL rated players this season:
🥇 Mo Salah – 7.82
🥈 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7.63 pic.twitter.com/JjqUcWlYp2
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 7, 2022
Just look at TAA’s stats in the Premier League this term. He’s delivered eight assists (one fewer than Salah, eight more than Mane), averages 3.1 key passes per 90 minutes (Salah 2.1, Mane 1.1) and records 1.7 shots per game – not bad for a player who typically occupies the right back berth.
He knows the more advanced position anyway given his marauding overlapping runs, and his ability to put crosses on a sixpence will have the likes of Jota, Firmino and Minamino chomping at the bit to get into the penalty area.
Alexander-Arnold has long been mooted for a positional shift… could the absence of Salah and Mane finally convince Klopp to give it a try?