It’s no secret that Liverpool’s season came apart at the seams when Sadio Mane left for the African Cup of Nations in January.
Jurgen Klopp’s side fell from title contenders at the turn of the year to securing a fourth-place finish on the final game of the season. Clearly something happened to change the course of Liverpool’s season, and Mane’s absence was obviously that.
This weekend, Liverpool face Manchester United, a team who – along with Manchester City – have steamed clear of the rest of the league in the early weeks of the season, and because of Mane’s injury whilst playing for Senegal in the international break, Saturday’s game now looks like a daunting task.
The Reds may well be cursing their luck when it comes to internationals and Sadio Mane. But it’s also worth puzzling exactly why Mane was such a big loss to the team last season, rather than just stating that Klopp’s side missed him.
Last season, in a side with a defence that was always vulnerable to counter-attacks, Jurgen Klopp seemingly didn’t want to take a chance and push players ahead of play. The result was a team capable of little or no penetration after Christmas, and with Philippe Coutinho playing on the left-hand side of a front three which included Roberto Firmino in the middle the Reds were short of players willing or able run in behind defences. Without Sadio Mane, they were utterly bereft.
Liverpool are not in short supply of creative players, but Mane represented the only player in the side who could create chances and positive situations by beating a man. Coutinho can create something out of nothing and Firmino’s link-up play can be stunning. But these are the sorts of things that only work when there are runners up ahead or one-twos played in tight spaces. Mane doesn’t need that runner, all he needs to do is beat a man and the game opens up. That, in turn, creates space for others to pick their penetrating passes.
That Mane problem was obvious to everyone, even if it was more nuanced than any notion that Liverpool were somehow a one-man team. But there is another factor, too, and that’s the defence: so poor was it that it made their attack ultra cautious, fearful of losing the ball in case that meant being picked apart on the counter-attack. An early defeat away to Burnley, when they dominated the game, had 80% of the possession and still lost to two counter-attack goals perhaps burned their fingers somewhat. The rest of the season was spent keeping their shape and hoping a skillful player like Mane could unlock defences. Without him, it was turgid and hard to watch at times, and with no real options on the bench to change that, watching Liverpool towards the end of the season started to look like watching the same match on repeat.
The answer wasn’t just to buy a second Mane, to allow for injury, suspension or – in the case of last season, international duty – but sort out the defence, too. And although they look like two separate problems, they were probably two sides of the same coin.
In the summer, they bought Mohamed Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who can both fill in for an injured Mane this weekend – or at least ‘fill-in’ in the sense of taking over the role of main attacking creator. That’s only half of the equation, though, and while Andrew Robertson arrived from Hull City, it’s hard to assert that Liverpool’s defence was bolstered a great deal, especially given they didn’t manage to find a centre-back.
But despite the debate over Liverpool’s back-line and Jurgen Klopp’s ability to organise his team at set-plays, the Reds have conceded fewer shots on their goal than any team in the league other than Manchester City. That probably points to progress in some ways. In football, you’ll usually find more than one solution to any given problem. There’s a rush in the modern game to attempt to solve everything in the transfer market, but defences can improve through coaching and hard work.
And yet, when you look at the number of goals Liverpool have actually conceded this season in the Premier League, the picture gets muddied again. Only West Ham and Crystal Palace have let in more. There might be a good reason for that: five of the 12 times Liverpool have picked the ball out of the net came at the Etihad Stadium in a controversial game and that makes the tally look much worse. But it’s also clear that the types of chances that Liverpool tend to give up are of the more obvious kind. Teams aren’t shooting from 30 yards against Liverpool, they’re tapping in chances because they’ve been let in behind.
The good news is that, even if Liverpool haven’t improved, and even if they are still reliant on a pacey, tricky creator to bail them out in the same way as they were last season, the injury to Mane won’t be as big a blow is it would have been last season with the addition of more players of his ilk in the summer. The prognosis for the Senegalese attacker is six weeks, and in that time, we’ll see if Mohamed Salah can be relied upon just as readily.
If he can, Mane’s injury might change very little, showing that Liverpool’s biggest fear from last season is not a problem this time. And if so, maybe we won’t see Jurgen Klopp’s side drop off the pace again.