The Strike: Sadio Mane hasn’t looked back since wondergoal vs Arsenal

When Liverpool signed Sadio Mane in summer 2016, not everybody was convinced by the then-Southampton forward’s price-tag, including Reds legend and Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher – who described £30million (actually £4million less than the Reds eventually paid) as expensive for the African attacker.

Nobody doubted Mane’s potential – this was, after all, the owner of the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history – but throughout two seasons at Southampton, there was always a worrying inconsistency to his game, something that appeared to be linked with over-ambition and immaturity. Rather tellingly, 17 of his 25 goals for the Saints were netted either during transfer windows, the month prior or the month after.

The logical assumption, therefore, was Mane reserving his best form for when he knew potential suitors would be watching. During the intermittent gaps in between, there were copious examples of the wide forward not showing the comradery expected of Premier League players, as if he felt above his team-mates on the south coast.

But in many walks of life, such dubious behaviour is common when talented people feel they aren’t being challenged enough, when they feel the true extremities of their abilities aren’t being fully recognised. Liverpool provided the perfect platform to address those inadequacies; to be a success at such a historic club, Mane would have to produce his best form week-in-week-out, and rather than hoping at best for Europa League qualification with Southampton, Jurgen Klopp’s side were looking at the Champions League as a bare minimum. Upon arriving at Anfield, Mane knew he’d have to leave any prima-donna tendencies at the door.

Mane’s first goal for Liverpool came during a transfer window too; in fact, it was during his very first competitive game and the very first game of the season, in August 2016. But whereas a goal for Southampton at that time would have only heightened accusations of angling for a move, a superfluous debut strike for Liverpool silenced critics, suggested Mane embracing the new challenges the Reds offered him and even gave a hint of the talismanic status he’d soon go on to enjoy. Not least because, Mane’s first goal for Liverpool was particularly exceptional.

In a rampant goal-fest of a curtain raiser at the start of 2016/17, it was Klopp’s Reds who unexpectedly laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the league at the Emirates Stadium. The scores were one apiece at half-time, but the visitors surged ahead in the second half – scoring three goals in under 20 minutes. The sheer ferociousness and velocity of that glut was captured perfectly by Mane’s goal; a relentless, dazzling dribble through two Arsenal defenders, cutting inside the box, before a left-footed rifle straight into the top corner of the net. Petr Cech, not to mention every other Gunner inside the penalty area, helplessly watched on.

Since that stunning debut goal, which proved to be the winner despite Arsenal’s late comeback, Mane quite simply hasn’t looked back. 29 Premier League appearances for the Reds have seen him produce 16 goals from out wide, five of which have come against top-seven opposition and six of which have been game-winning goals – not least including a 94th minute winner against Everton in the Merseyside derby, the perfect way to announce yourself as the new hero at Anfield.

But even more telling than his goals, the 25-year-old’s absences have highlighted how crucial he’s become to Klopp’s side. Last season, the Reds’ win-rate across all competitions dropped by a staggering 26% when Mane wasn’t in the starting XI and after involvement in the African Cup of Nations followed by a long-term injury, Liverpool didn’t actually win a Premier League fixture without him until April.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of Mane’s importance to Liverpool, however, came on Sunday afternoon, once again Arsenal in a 4-0 romping. The Reds have more than coped without Philippe Coutinho offensively amid the Brazilian’s Barcelona transfer saga and it’s Mane who has taken his spot on the left wing, scoring in all three of his Premier League outings thus far including the second strike against the Gunners.

It was by no means a stand-out individual display from the Senegalese as the Reds produced an exceptional team performance, controlling all departments in a resounding victory. But it’s the sheer ferociousness going forward Mane offers down the left-hand side, especially in conjunction with Mohamed Salah on the opposite flank, that has helped make Liverpool such a relentless scoring threat despite being without Coutinho, who many view as their most talented player.

Considering the vast sum Barcelona are reportedly prepared to offer for Coutinho, that 4-0 battering and Mane’s influence from the left might just convince Liverpool’s powerbrokers the South American is worth more to them in financial than footballing terms. Either way, Mane’s Carragher and his other critics wrong in sensational style.