At the beginning of November I argued that Sadio Mane had become Liverpool’s most important player. That ‘with a little juggling Coutinho could be temporarily replaced whereas Mane couldn’t’. As if to demonstrate my point, fate stepped in and Coutinho was duly injured shortly thereafter.
Mane’s importance became evident during Liverpool’s 6-1 hammering of Watford at Anfield, when he was withdrawn early following a knock. The visitors were 5-0 down at this point and staring down the barrel of a record thrashing when the Reds’ tormentor-in-chief was substituted. Subsequently, Liverpool struggled and Watford rallied. The score in this 27 minute mini-game without Mane finished 1-1, but only after Watford had scored first. Sound familiar Liverpool fans? And this was no fluke, their goal was the third of three excellent chances they created in a row following Mane’s departure and there was no mistaking the fact that Liverpool were on the ropes.
First we’ll take a look at the stats. In the nine Premiership games where Coutinho hasn’t been fully available, they have won 4, drawn 3 and lost 2, garnering 15 of the 27 points available. Without Mane they have drawn and lost one each; however, Liverpool also faced Premiership opponents Southampton in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup and lost both legs of the draw. So one could argue that they have drawn once and lost three in addition to struggling past Division 2 opponents, Plymouth, in the FA Cup. I won’t bother with the math but the evidence is damning.
Mane, on the other hand, was flying for Senegal in the AFCON. He steered them into a quarter-final with Cameroon and they were clear favourites to win that and the trophy itself, in large part due to his own excellent form. But any triumph in the AFCON, had it materialised, would’ve been tinged with sadness at what could have been had he been at Liverpool. The great work from the early months has been undone, the possibility of a title challenge has vanished and even Champions League qualification now hangs in the balance as a resurgent Manchester United hunts his team down.
So what makes Mane so instrumental to the way Liverpool play? Searing pace is his most obvious asset and neither Sturridge, Firmino, or Origi can compensate. This threat forces opponents to play deeper. However, opponents haven’t particularly changed their style in Mane’s absence. They continue to play deep and in numbers against Liverpool regardless. Liverpool continue to dominate possession in games too, usually around 75%, an astonishing figure, especially considering Klopp is the real-life resemblance of counter-attacking at its best. But it is what they do with that possession, or more pertinently what they can’t do without Mane, that is the problem.
When Liverpool are rolling that ball across their midfield looking to carve out a chance, and can’t, there are two apparent issues. Firstly, they lack a player with the guile to create an opening—although Coutinho’s return has corrected this to some extent. And secondly, the forward players lack the ability to make something of a rare incisive ball to their feet. Mane is wonderful at doing both. He is not as good a no. 10 as Coutinho is, but he’s significantly different and offers another avenue of attack for Liverpool. He is far more dangerous when receiving a through ball than his colleagues currently are.
With opposing defences playing so deep, it is difficult for Liverpool playmakers to play balls behind defences. Often they are forced wide to Milner or Clyne and this negates a large part of a striker like Sturridge’s game. There is simply no space for him to exploit nor time to dawdle as a well-drilled defence is on him in a flash. Mane, however, is as quick with his mind as he is with his feet. He is adept at turning, intelligent and tricky and comfortable in confined spaces. He can either attack or pass in these instances and concedes far less often than Sturridge does. Mane’s close control enables him to combine effectively with Firmino and Lallana in one-two’s and the type of silky movements that can outfox the meanest defences. This is what Liverpool did so well in the early part of the season.
Such a technically gifted player also improves the game of those around him. It is notable how ineffective both Firmino and Lallana have become in his absence. Lallana coped well without Coutinho, and his contribution perhaps even improved as he took on some of the little Brazilian’s responsibilities—however, he has been almost negligible since Mane departed. Except for his two goals against Swansea, Firmino’s contribution has also been ineffective, although this has been obvious for some time.
The positivity that Mane brings to this Liverpool team, in all areas, is fundamental to their success. He can, at a pinch, play as a no. 10, winger or centre-forward. Often in games, he does all three. And he is good at pressing and scores important goals in addition to all those things. He is the difference between the 2015/16 side and the early title challenging 2016/17 side. With both Coutinho and Mane on the pitch Liverpool are a footballing force of nature. Jurgen Klopp likes to talk about heavy metal football, and if Liverpool were a band, then Mane would definitely be the lead guitarist.
When Mane returns from the AFCON, I expect so will the tricks, the deft flicks, the one-two’s and those sublime reverse passes that so characterized Liverpool in the first half of the season. But, a hangover may be on the agenda, and there’s every possibility that he struggles to recuperate his previously sensational form. First, though, Liverpool will have to navigate a game against Chelsea, with or without Mane, that could see them drop out of the top 4 for the first time since September.