With his Southampton contract set to enter its final two years, Sadio Mane’s career will reach a crossroads this summer.
On the one hand, he could sign a new deal to prolong his affluent spell at St. Mary’s; on the other, he could look to force a summer transfer, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich amongst the clubs credited with interest in the winger-forward throughout the season.
The latter scenario seems more likely. Mane’s found himself frozen out by Ronald Koeman at times this season, most notably in January after turning up late for a team meeting, and looked almost angry after his second-half brace inspired a 3-2 win over Liverpool before the international break, suggesting not all is well on the south coast.
Likewise, having been forced to part with Nathaniel Clyne last summer for the largely underwhelming sum of £12.5million – £2.5million of which went straight to former club Crystal Palace – the Saints will be keen to cash in rather than surrender another a key player at market value, potentially to another divisional rival, due to his contract winding down.
But that begs a rather obvious question; is the Senegal sensation ready to make the jump to the Premier League’s elite? Does he have what it takes to become a ‘big club’ player?
Well, the 23-year-old has already established himself as a ‘big game’ player, at least within the ever-chaotic realms of Premier League football. The Saints find themselves just four points and three positions away from a Champions League spot and that impressive league standing owes much to their strong results against the division’s ‘big clubs’ this term – wins over Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and West Ham, alongside draws with Leicester City, the Reds and the Gunners.
The lion’s share of the credit has to go to manager Ronald Koeman, who has coupled a positive atmosphere at St. Mary’s with a series of shrewd tactical displays. But whether a cause or a consequence, Mane’s performances against the Premier League’s top clubs have verged upon talismanic at times, producing either a goal, assist or both against Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal – five of last season’s top six.
Indeed, the flying forward’s penetrative pace and nomadic movement always seem to have an effect in big games, especially when the Saints are looking to hit teams on the counter. That is undoubtedly where Mane’s biggest strengths lay; fixtures in which he becomes the predominant outlet on the break and is encouraged to make runs beyond the centre-forward.
But games of such description become less common the higher up the league you go. Leicester represent an anomaly but Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Man United rarely find themselves playing on the break; rather, they’re usually camped in the opposition half, hoping a player like Sadio Mane doesn’t hit them at the other end, with little room to run behind or between two well-organised banks of four.
It’s games like that where Mane is yet to truly convince, especially in his preferred No.10 role. He’s inconsistent technically when compared to the current No.10s at the aforementioned clubs – players like Mesut Ozil and David Silva – and the African attacker doesn’t possess the quality or intelligence to retain possession in the same way.
Of course, there is no indisputable type of No.10 and Mane’s versatility – capable of playing out wide or as a poacher – is one of his biggest assets, particularly in regards to how he’d fit into the squad at a ‘big club’. But the stats are incredibly telling and for all of the forward’s output against the aforementioned top teams, his remaining 24 league appearances of the campaign – predominantly against sides who take a more balanced approach – have produced just one goal and two assists, both of which came before the end of September.
No doubt, good quality players are always adaptable, especially when they’re at Mane’s relatively tender age, and even top teams employ counter-attacking tactics in certain fixtures. If Mane can be a big-game player for Southampton, affecting the scoreline against heavyweight opposition, there’s no reason he can’t perform a similar role in six-point affairs for Chelsea or United.
Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the less dynamic aspects of the 31-cap international’s game, his ability to break down tight-knit defences with technique, precision and movement rather than pace and power, remains a matter of great debate. Players like Marouane Fellaini, Raheem Sterling, Christian Benteke and Wilfried Bony, despite arriving with proven Premier League pedigree, have struggled at big clubs partly because they’ve found the transition from more attritional counter-attacking to dominant, possession-based football a particularly uneasy one. Mane could find himself in a similar situation twelve months down the line.
Considering the risk resultantly involved, whether Chelsea or United come good on their interest in Mane during the summer transfer window could well depend on his price-tag. Most reports have speculated a fee between £20million and £30million, which perhaps isn’t out of character with the current market norms.
But would I pay that much for the Senegal star? At this moment in time, probably not. After another year of strong displays on the south coast, however, at which point Mane’s contract situation will see his value depreciate, I could certainly be convinced otherwise.