From a mockably expensive signing to one of the league’s best players, popular opinion of Sadio Mane has changed drastically in just a few months. Liverpool have grown dependent on the former Southampton livewire, as was evident when he was away at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal.
Jurgen Klopp has seen his Liverpool team wane. From their dazzling, electric football of earlier in the season that made them Chelsea’s greatest threat, they are now floundering with the rest of the chasing pack and look unlikely to finish in the top four. An inability to defend against counter-attacks or break down low-block defences has been the bane of Liverpool’s 2017 to date.
The one answer to their problems has supposedly been Mane. While he has not fixed everything that has gone wrong, his influence is still clear. He tore Spurs apart last weekend in a way that few players have done in recent seasons. For all the mistakes made tactically by Mauricio Pochettino, it was Mane’s presence that made Spurs look so abject, so incapable of defending properly. His pace is clearly what makes him so key for Liverpool, especially as Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are naturally not as willing to run beyond a defence.
It is that burst of pace, the lightening acceleration, which makes Mane such a joy to watch. He fits into Liverpool’s high pressing game as a result. He hounds opposition defenders in possession and disappears off their shoulder when a ball is played into the space behind them. He must be hideous to play against.
To put his importance solely down to his speed, though, is to do him a disservice. Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi are both fast – albeit not quite as rapid as Mane – but they do not have the same impact on Liverpool’s forward line. It’s his intelligence that sets him apart. The timing of his runs and the collective understanding he has with his teammates is part of what makes him such a vital cog. He has attacking instincts which, when combined with his physical attributes, make for quite a threat. A knack of knowing where the ball will drop and being able to beat anyone to the ball makes him a terror.
While Coutinho will occasionally drift wide, Mane holds width more naturally as he has played as a winger for much of his career, offering his side a different option. He knows when to drift inside and run the channel between the opposition’s left-sided centre back and left-back, but he also will go to the touchline to create room centrally. Having loaned out Lazar Markovic, Liverpool lack natural width in the final third, without Mane they become congested centrally.
Although he was not signed as a solve-all to Liverpool’s problems, Mane has done a damn good job at doing just that. His role in the Liverpool team is far more complex than simply running beyond defences. He performs as a winger, he fills the gap of a striker at times and his goal scoring – which has seen him outscore Christian Benteke, Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard this season – has been one of the keys to Liverpool’s success.
This summer Liverpool must find a plan B or a Mane mark two. In the meantime, they must hope he continues to score at a prolific rate and remains fully fit.