Traditionally, English football was the home of lethal front twos.
Think Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton in Blackburn Rovers’ 1994/95 title-winning side, how Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole inspired Manchester United to their historic 1998/99 treble or the waves Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry - the master and the apprentice - were beginning to make at Arsenal around the same time.
Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, variants of Barcelona’s 4-3-3 became the dominant creed, whether that was Pep Guardiola’s Luke Skywalker homage to Johan Cruyff’s Obi-Wan Kenobi or Jose Mourinho’s more Death Star take on the whole thing.
Either way, the old big-man/little-man combo was falling out of fashion. England’s top-flight had generally proved resistant to such prevailing winds, but the likes of Mourinho, Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp planting their flags in the Premier League meant teams would not, to quote Mike Bassett, be playing “four-four-f******-two.”
But there was no reason to bemoan the demise of iconic duos as three became the magic number across world football. This was the era of MSN at Barcelona and BBC at Real Madrid.
They might have lacked a snappy three-letter abbreviation, but Liverpool’s lethal trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino provided the Premier League’s answer — a combination purpose-built to Klopp’s high-pressing demands that provided goals and assists by the bucketload.
Mane has, of course, left the stage for pastures new at Bayern Munich. Darwin Nunez gives every indication of posing different but no-less taxing problems to opposition defences. But, in terms of an all-purpose, wrecking machine of a front three, the Premier League has a new number one.
If they take down Chelsea this weekend, Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulesevski will burnish their burgeoning reputation as the combination that can take Tottenham to new heights.
🎙 “All of my goals come from this area, this area or three or four meters back”— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) August 9, 2022
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The Salah, Mane, Firmino era at Liverpool
Between 2015 and 2017, Firmino, Mane and Salah joined Liverpool in consecutive summer transfer windows. Each player now ranks within the Anfield club’s top 20 goalscorers of all time, with Salah leading the way on 158, Mane bowing out on 120 and Firmino two shy of his century.
They were at their zenith in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, when Liverpool initially lost out to Manchester City by a point in the title race before winning their first league crown for 30 years the following season.
There were golden moments before and after. They were firing on all cylinders in the run to the 2018 Champions League final. Liverpool’s title defence collapsed amid a defensive injury crisis in 2020/21 and, even though the star trio were essential in salvaging a top-four finish, the growing prominence of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz’s arrival this January meant it was more of a forward collective during 2021/22’s quadruple chase.
So, for peak Salah-Mane-Firmino, let’s examine that 2018-2020 period. Across the two league seasons, the Reds scored 169 goals with Opta awarding assists for 123. Salah, Mane and Firmino accounted for 102 of those goals — an eye-watering 60.35% — and 32% of assists (40), an impressive number but one that also nods towards Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson’s importance when it comes to supplying the ammunition.
|Liverpool in 2018/19 and 2019/20||Goals||Assists|
|Salah, Mane, Firmino combined||102||40|
|Team overall in the Premier League||169||123|
Mane proved to be the most clinical finisher, with his 40 goals coming from attempts with an xG value of 24.79 and giving him a shot conversion rate of 24.39%. His minutes-per-goal rate of 145.95 also outstripped Salah’s 149.76, although the Egypt superstar was the top goalscorer (41) and assist provider (18).
Firmino always was the foil to his more prolific team-mates and chipped in with 21 goals and 14 assists over the same period, which encompassed 76 Premier League games. Salah, Mane and Firmino started 70, 66 and 65 of those respectively.
Are Kane, Son and Kulusevski the best front three in the Premier League?
Irrespective of Spurs playing different variations on a front three under Mauricio Pochettino, Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo, Kane and Son had come to feel like a bit of a throwback, given they were essentially a two-man band. They did the goals and assists, other people did other stuff of questionable merit.
Kulusevski’s arrival at the end of January on an initial 18-month loan from Juventus has proved to be a game-changer. It’s one Antonio Conte himself obscured initially by moaning about an unsatisfactory transfer window, when in actual fact both Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur lifted Spurs considerably.
On his first start, Kulusevski opened the scoring to set in motion a rollercoaster 3-2 win at Manchester City, with Kane netting the other two after half-time and producing an all-round masterclass.
Son ended last season sharing the Premier League Golden Boot with Salah and Kulusevski opened his account in the 4-1 opening weekend win over Southampton, where he and Son each chipped in with an assist.
|Tottenham since January 31, 2022||Goals||Assists|
|Son, Kane and Kulusevski combined||33||21|
|Team overall in the Premier League||42||35|
Between them since Kulusevski arrived from Turin, Tottenham’s front three have scored 33 goals and supplied 21 assists in 19 Premier League games apiece (Kane and Son have started all of the games in question, with Kulusevski named in the first XI 15 times).
In that period, Spurs scored 42 with Opta awarding assists for 35 of those goals. It means the front three account for an astonishing 78.6% of goals and 60% of assists.
Kane’s propensity to shoot an awful lot is part of the reason for him having the lowest shot conversion of the three (16.22%). The England skipper’s 12 goals have come at a rate of one every 142.5 minutes and from attempts with an xG value of 11.38.
Son has 15 goals in his past 19 games, with five assists to Kane’s seven. His xG of 9.48 has been blown out of the water as he averages a goal every 108.07 minutes thanks to a 32.6% shot conversion rate.
Kulusevski’s six goals make him look like the Firmino of the piece, but there appears to be scope for that number to increase. The 22-year-old has outperformed his 3.73 xG and is ticking along at a shot conversion rate of 21.43%. His nine assists also place him ahead of his illustrious team-mates.
Can Chelsea’s front three match Tottenham’s?
Beyond numbers and other such wonkery, there is also an eye-test that works in the Spurs trio’s favour. Son, Kane and Kulusevski look devastating, able to hurt teams on the front foot and on the counter from multiple angles.
Liverpool’s forward line might soon feel just as potent once Nunez is integrated, while Manchester City fans have probably already retweeted this piece with an array of Erling Haaland gifs. But Guardiola’s attack is a different beast, with wide players having duties related to defending and team shape high on their list of demands, while Haaland’s link with Kevin De Bruyne in attacking midfield feels like the most obvious route to goal.
Arsenal are bedding in an exciting combination of Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, but it remains to be seen whether they can produce the weight of goals within Mikel Arteta’s system to enter the conversation. Manchester United played two midfielders up front in their defeat to Brighton and were then linked with 33-year-old loose cannon Marko Arnautovic to lead the attack, so it’s hard to really know where to begin with that hot mess.
Chelsea are not in anything close to United’s level of disarray, but when they host Spurs at the weekend, Thomas Tuchel might look towards the clarity Conte has in attack with a degree of envy — not something that felt likely when the Blues beat Tottenham three times in 18 days prior to Kulusevski landing.
“It’s cursed, it’s cursed, people tell me it’s cursed,” Tuchel said of Chelsea’s number nine shirt, which lies vacant again after Romelu Lukaku beat a hasty retreat back to Inter Milan.
“Players sometimes want to change numbers but, surprisingly, nobody wants to touch it. Everybody who is longer than me in the club tells me: ‘Ah, you know, like he had the nine and he did not score and he had the nine and did also not score.’ So we now we have a moment where nobody wants to touch the number nine.”
As the spectres of Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata and others loom over that vacant shirt, Timo Werner is also going back to what he knew at RB Leipzig. Before and after Tuchel’s arrival, Chelsea’s hit-rate in attack has been appalling.
Raheem Sterling’s stellar career suggests he will be different, but it was peculiar to see him playing through the middle as Kai Havertz was an ineffective presence on the left-flank during a cagey 1-0 win at Everton.
Sterling rarely played centrally when City operated without a striker last season, while his impressive work through the middle with England has come with Kane to play off. Havertz was Chelsea’s Champions League final matchwinner as a false nine in 2021, but the stuttering attempts to integrate Lukaku last season brought confusion around the role of an obviously gifted attacker.
Mason Mount at least has clarity and will be a key part of whatever else Chelsea achieve in the Tuchel era. A haul of 11 Premier League goals was the England international’s best tally of his career last term. Mount tracking in the right direction in as a goalscorer a big positive; the fact that it made him Chelsea’s top scorer, not so much.
Tottenham to finish third in 2022/23 has been a popular tip outside of Stamford Bridge. If Sunday’s game also points towards Spurs overhauling Chelsea to become London’s leading team, it will probably have much to do with a front three that looks to be a cut above the competition.