This season has brought a lot of positives to Liverpool fans, top four in their hands with just two games left, one foot in the Champions League final, and the phenomenal exploits of one Mohamed Salah. However, as one African winger blossomed into the heartthrob of Reds everywhere, another has had to take a back seat.
Sadio Mane enjoyed a brilliant debut campaign at Anfield, but this season has seen his feats bettered on every level by the lovingly labelled ‘Egyptian King.’ At points throughout the season a small faction of supporters have slated Mane, particularly on social media, because they have deemed his season to be poor.
Fortunately, their apparent vendetta against the Senegalese winger can be easily disproven. So far, Mane has bettered his tally for goals, managing five more than last season (18 compared to 13) and chipping in with nine assists, again bettering his tally from last season (six assists) – and there are three, potentially four games left for Mane to better his record.
All the while, last year’s player of the season has had to accustom himself to a new position out on the left, as well as suffering a hamstring injury that ruled him out for nearly a month earlier this season.
But more than anything, Mane has altered his style of play, particularly since a certain ‘little magician’ left for Spain.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is the closest thing Klopp has at his disposal, in terms of a direct replacement for Coutinho, but Mane has also become more of a creative outlet, than the goalscorer everyone saw last season.
The two players are not similar in any way, but we have seen Mane taking a deeper position, and often drifting infield, allowing Robertson to become the outlet on the left wing, but also dragging opposition defenders out of position.
Mane’s heat map for the season illustrates how often he finds himself in central areas in the final third. It is also noticeable that Mane spends very little time in the opposition box, which is largely down to both Robert Firmino and Salah who often drift into the box whereas Mane looks for spaces between the opposition’s defensive lines, the middle man between the midfield trio, and two-thirds of the Reds front three.
As mentioned above, Mane drifting infield allows the full-back to hug the by-line and offer an outlet to spread the defence. This approach is integral when you are trying to break down teams who sit deep. Although Firmino will often look to drop deep, that approach lets the defence to keep their shape and allows one of the opposition midfielders to track the Brazilian. With this slightly altered approach, Mane can drop which allows the full back to bomb forward and get balls into the box as Firmino continues to occupy the centre-backs and Salah and the midfield three enter the box late.
It’s a simple enough approach, but it takes intelligence on Manes part for it to work as well as it has this season. Robertson has often found himself with space down the left wing, and as the season has progressed he is finding more space around the 18 yard box – where Robertson is in his element and able to whip delightful crosses into the danger area.
Mane’s movement off the ball is an essential cog in the Liverpool machine, but he is just as lethal on the ball – particularly when he is running at a defender. He is in his element in those moments and as he runs infield it allows either Firmino or Salah (whoever is more central) to drift out to the left. What usually leads to space through the middle for Mane to continue his run is if the defender follows Firmino or Salah. But if the defender doesn’t follow Firmino/Salah it means they will more than likely be open in the final third, which can be just as threatening.
It’s true that Mane is no longer the main man, and teams likely don’t fear him as much as either Salah or Firmino, but his slightly adjusted role has moulded him into a different animal and created another element to Liverpool’s already frightening front three.