Much has been made of Sadio Mané’s terrible, no good, very bad season over the course of the year. At least in some quarters. He isn’t scoring as much as he used to, they say, despite that the 25-year old is averaging as many minutes per goal as in his debut season for the Reds—185 and 187, respectively—in which he earned rave reviews across the board. He’s not beating players the same way, they say, even though—and you’ll probably notice a pattern here—he’s dribbling past opponents at exactly the same rate as last season and in fact losing the ball less often when doing so.
But, they say, He just doesn’t look the same. Well, fine, I don’t have any numbers to disprove look. What’s absolutely certain—and likely related to him looking so different—though, is that Sadio Mané is playing a completely different role this season. With the arrival of wide poacher extraordinaire Mohamed Salah, Mané moved from the right-side inside forward position—from which he earned the top scorer title last season—to the left side of attack.
Previously occupied by Philippe Coutinho, the left prong of Jürgen Klopp’s attacking trident revolves around setting up plays more than it does finishing them off. Certainly, cutting inside and shooting has been an—occasionally exhausted—option over the years, but as a general rule in the German’s Liverpool side, attacks originate on the left and end over on the centre-right.
The mouth-watering proposition Liverpool fans believed they were being offered at the start of the season was one where both sides of the trident would be finishing off moves with Coutinho pulling strings in a deeper midfield role. The Fab Four was coined. It was a Beatles thing. You may have heard about it. And when it clicked it could be spectacular.
There are two words to consider there, though. When. Because the famous fab four only ever started four league games and three Champions League games together. And Could. Because despite the impressive goal tallies boasted by the quartet, Liverpool only managed to win three of those games while drawing the other four.
Now, one can speculate as to why a team that has now won 57% of their matches on the season only managed a win rate of 43% when their four best players were on the pitch at the same time, and the data set is admittedly tiny—perhaps it would’ve all evened out given enough time—but the congestion that plagued the left side of the attack with both Mané and Coutinho shading to that side might have had something to do with it.
The two players, perhaps, simply got in each other’s way as often as not. While it mattered little in the 7-0 thumping of an overpowered Maribor side, it created trouble as the Reds struggled to break down West Bromwich and Spartak Moscow. Klopp tried a few different solutions to the quandary, moving Coutinho to the right of midfield against Arsenal, even switching formations—from his favoured 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1—playing the Brazilian in a pure number ten role against Leicester, and while the team scored goals, the duo in question still never looked entirely comfortable.
In the end, the solution seems to have presented itself in the most lucrative of manners: simply allowing Coutinho to get his dream move for an exorbitant fee and letting the team sort itself out. Galvanisation, as it were.
Which brings us all the way back around to Sadio Mané, his performances in the second half of the season—and particularly against Watford on Saturday. Salah will deservedly get the plaudits for his four goals, his torment of Miguel Britos, and his bashful apologies to goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis after the match, but overlooking the impact Mané had in his new playmaking role would be doing the former Southampton man a huge disservice.
Dropping deep and central from his nominal wide left position, the Senegalese was pivotal to nearly everything the Reds created. Two assists—taking his tally to nine on the season—a hockey assist, a delicious chipped through ball that Danny Ings should have converted, and countless skips past his man to the inside followed by a diagonal release to his opposite forward or fullback, all contributed to Mané largely operating as the team’s offensive hub.
There are differences between the two, naturally. Coutinho’s otherworldly close control allowed him to be more comfortable in tighter spaces, and the Brazilian is more of a long shot threat. However, Mané’s outrageous balance will often let him shrug off fouls and play the advantage when it’s there, while his aversion to long range efforts means he will always keep his head up for a pass instead—eschewing the hopeful strike that is often frustratingly blocked.
Whether this new wrinkle in Mané’s evolving game is something Jürgen Klopp worked on in anticipation of Coutinho’s departure, or if this is a more natural progression and the result of his shift to the left, don’t be surprised if the number 19 pops up in the assists columns—primary and secondary—more often than the goals column in the near future. So if you do see him threading through balls down the channels more often than skinning a fullback while breaking into the box, it won’t be an indication that his game has suffered. Merely that his talents are being put to a different use, and ultimately that will be of benefit to the team.