Analysis: Keita outshines Salah & Mane as Ndidi struggles vs Liverpool

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Liverpool travelled to Leicester City on Boxing Day and won handsomely despite the rarest of sights – an off day for Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Brendan Rodgers faced the man who replaced him at Liverpool in Jurgen Klopp, and having seen his side thoroughly outplayed in midfield by Manchester City, he brought in some extra support for Wilfred Ndidi in the shape of Dennis Praet.

For Liverpool, it was the fluid 4-3-3 of recent weeks with Naby Keita on the right of the central midfield trio, with Mane and Salah in the front three but with the licence to roam.

As against Red Bull Salzburg and Watford, Salah played almost entirely as the centre forward in this match, allowing Roberto Firmino to drop deep to link play and help to overload Leicester in midfield, whilst the Egyptian’s usual defensive work on the right was performed by Keita.

In the first 11 minutes alone, Salah’s high position led to clear-cut chances.

First, he pulled into the inside right channel and delivered a sumptuous cross from which Mane contrived to miss an opportunity from close range.

Then, after Liverpool broke at pace, Keita chopped inside and played a sublime through-ball to release Salah one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel, only for the Egyptian to take the ball very wide and then hit the side-netting.

Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2019-20

He could instead have put his foot on the ball and looked to pick out a teammate.

The duo’s wastefulness continued as Mane was presented with a clear chance after Virgil van Dijk’s ball over the top, but his attempt to give Schmeichel the eyes didn’t work and the Denmark goalkeeper saved well.

Barely a minute later, Mane cut inside on a counter attack, but Ndidi made a key challenge to deny him.

The fact that Liverpool were so easily creating chances through the duo was because of how Jurgen Klopp had set up his side.

With Georginio Wijnaldum dropping deep to give the backline two deep receivers to find when building up, it drew Leicester onto them and opened space for Mane coming inside or the speed of Salah on the last line.

Meanwhile, Keita’s close control, skill and excellent interpretation of Klopp’s positional play is what made the right flank so dangerous.

If Trent Alexander-Arnold was high and wide, Keita would often be in a position to cover any breaks through James Maddison. If Salah moved wide, Keita would move higher up. The trio’s interchange caused issues similar to those Leicester had faced against City’s right sided trio.

Wilfred Ndidi - Leicester City

Ndidi, meanwhile, was in prime fire-fighter mode.

He made five first half tackles, with four inside the box, including to deny Salah and Keita.

Against Firmino, Ndidi was not always certain whether to track the Brazil attacker or hold his position, whilst he very rarely found himself able to receive and face forward.

Firmino largely screened any passes to Ndidi and most of his early touches saw him receive from Jonny Evans and simply give the ball back, whilst one risky pass towards the midfielder saw him uncertain and Liverpool won the ball high up before Salah skied a shot high and wide.

There was also a heavy chest control by the Nigeria midfielder from a throw-in from which Jordan Henderson won the ball, but Ndidi did well to recover and block the Liverpool captain’s shot.

On the ball, he managed to complete just seven of his 12 forward passes and made 10 passes to Evans alone. For all his defensive abilities, the two top teams faced in recent days seemed to have been targeting his ball-playing ability.

Salah’s game ended on 71 minute mark after a second half of poor touches.

Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2019-20

He completed only eight of his 15 passes in the match, didn’t hit the target with any of his four shots, was dispossessed twice and had five heavy control touches which saw him lose the ball.

In the 57th minute, he missed an absolute sitter from close range but was relieved to see the flag had been raised.

Mane may have profligate in front of goal but he did manage to do some very good defensive work in tracking Ricardo Pereira off the ball, even if he did not make a tackle or interception in the match. The Senegal winger also assisted Alexander-Arnold’s late goal after moving over to the right flank when Keita was taken off.

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Probably the biggest success story of the night was Keita’s continued excellent form and just how well he functioned in midfield. At times, he even swapped roles with Wijnaldum, moving to Henderson’s left to help build play, with his Dutch midfield partner taking the opportunity to get forward.

It says everything about how good Klopp’s side is that Salah and Mane can miss so many clear openings and yet they can still win 4-0 away at the side below them in the table.

It also speaks volumes how the side can maximise player attributes like Salah’s pace or Firmino’s play between the lines with such small tweaks to how their 4-3-3 functions.