Sadio Mane has enjoyed a stellar 2019. Has his development under Jurgen Klopp made the forward Liverpool’s most important player?
When Mane joined Liverpool for £36m in 2016, he became one of the most expensive players in their history and there were serious question marks over he would prove worthy of his fee.
It was a significant sum at the time and, on the back of a couple of decent seasons with Southampton, was he just the latest in a line of imports from St Mary’s, which had not always worked out for the best?
Three years on, ask Jurgen Klopp which player has been his greatest student and the lightning-fast Senegal forward will rank very near the top. Four years ago he was dropped from Southampton’s line-up for turning up late, now he’s one of the first names on the team-sheet at Anfield, and is sure to start in their game with Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off is at 5.30pm.
Liverpool vs Arsenal
August 24, 2019, 5:00pm
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“We knew we would get a good player when we signed him from Southampton. Did we know exactly how good? I wouldn’t say so,” Klopp said when asked about the 27-year-old.
“You sign a player then hope he can take a few more steps and he did that. So far, so good. He is a very, very important player for us, and a very nice person.”
That quote came before the start of 2019, during which he has scored 20 goals in 28 games for Liverpool, a figure even Mo Salah cannot come close to rivalling. Mane’s rise has been exceptional, but where did it all go right?
Right on the Mane: What’s changed?
When Mane left St Mary’s three years ago he did so as a fleet-footed goalscoring wide man, as comfortable in the box as on the right flank he buzzed up and down. Coming off the back of a season where he contributed 11 league goals and six assists, those numbers stayed fairly consistent in a reasonable opening year at Anfield.
Things could have gone sour when Mo Salah arrived a year later, in his position, with Philippe Coutinho Liverpool’s regular ‘winger’ on the left. But the Brazilian’s long-running will-he-won’t-he with Barcelona opened the door for Mane, and only served as the start of his transformation into one of the world’s best inside forwards.
His dribbling and ability with both feet married perfectly with Roberto Firmino’s exceptional link-up play and Salah’s deadly finishing. Salah might have been the main man in his debut campaign, but Mane thrived too in this fluid triumvirate, making the most of his licence to roam opposition back-lines. He dribbled significantly less, spending more time finding shooting positions inside the box instead, and thrived.
By this point Klopp wasn’t the only one surprised. “He has become such a force for Liverpool,” Gary Neville wrote in his column ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Manchester United that season, without the injured winger.
“You would have never said before Mane joined he’d be the most pivotal player but you would now say that losing him is a big psychological blow.”
Mane’s hat-trick against Porto in the Champions League summed things up – a curling finish from the left of the area, a tap-in from the right and a long-range finish down the middle. A different kind of perfect hat-trick.
But last season was something else entirely. Perhaps Klopp noticed Mane’s development in the final third, but whether by design or not he had a third more touches in the opposition box. And made full use of them.
In 2017/18 Mane had scored 10 league goals from 70 shots. One in seven. In 2018/19, he netted 22 from 87. One in four.
One-season wonder? Not on the evidence of his strike against Southampton on Saturday. Allowing him one touch out of his feet was enough to prove fatal, as he buried the ball past Angus Gunn from 20 yards with his now-typical aplomb.
Will fatigue set in?
The importance of Liverpool’s front three has made them almost undroppable, especially in big games. Two Champions League final appearances in as many years have been enough of a strain on the trio but for Mane, a run to the final of this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal means he’s played some 113 competitive games since the start of 2017/18.
The goals and forward contribution of Liverpool’s front three is unparalleled across the so-called ‘top six’, meaning even with his relentless schedule, there is little hope of a break for Mane, or his colleagues. That fact is not lost on Klopp.
“We sit here and it sounds like I’m having a moan,” said the Liverpool boss during pre-season. “It is just the situation, in the long term, is not acceptable. It’s not like after three days you can say to them, ‘Hey! Come on! Let’s start running again!’.
“They have had a tough summer programme. It’s football. It’s not riding a bike, so you lose a little bit. It will all come back but it will be a tough start.”