By Shaun Wylde – @ShaunWylde
Sadio Mane is a world-class player… sort of.
When the Senegalese wideman joined the Reds in the summer of 2016 he was an absolute revelation, adding another dimension to our attack and providing raw pace behind the oppositions defence. He combined superbly with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho to devastate opposition teams, yet when he left for the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2017, our season nearly fell apart.
We were in poor form from the beginning of January onwards which only ceased when Mane returned from AFCON and scored twice against Tottenham at Anfield. The following season, he had to adapt his game slightly, he moved from the right wing to the left after the purchase of Mohamed Salah from Roma and as the season progressed he even found game time not as regular as before.
Mane actually started the 2017-18 season very strong, he was unplayable against Hoffenheim at Anfield and scored in our first three Premier League games of the season but a red card against Manchester City disrupted his rhythm and then in the 1-1 draw against Everton at Anfield, Mane wasted a good chance when shooting at goal instead of squaring a pass to Salah and from there it felt like his confidence was shot for a while.
During the first half of the 2017-18 season, a lot was made of Liverpools “Fab Four” but the reality was that they very rarely all played together. The team felt unbalanced with them all on the same pitch and Mane was the one that usually had to give way.
When Coutinho was sold to Barcelona, the Senegalese found more regular game time and his form picked up massively with him Firmino and Salah combining excellently through the second half of the season, he ended the 17-18 season with 20 goals in all competitions, 10 goals in the league and a goal in the Champions League final.
More importantly though, Sadio proved he could play in a variety of roles and this could be a factor for why his form has looked so patchy at times this season – because he has had to continue this in the current season.
The thing about Mane is that he actually could be widely considered as one of the best players in the world but he is instead frustrating to a portion of the fan base. Over his time at Liverpool he has been a goal scorer, a match winner, a creator, a right sided winger, a left sided winger and an outlet who’s held the ball up to get his side out of pressure.
He can bring other players into play, he can strike the ball well with either foot and he works tirelessly off the ball to help Liverpool maintain their press. He has all the attributes to be an elite player. Then why is he so frustrating to some people?
I think a large reason is down to his decision-making which has seemingly gotten worse over his time with the Reds. When Mane joined I was in awe at how many times he chose the right option at the right time but nowadays he seems to shoot at terrible times instead of passing. He looks to score instead of setting up a team mate which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if he was a consistent goal scorer but his finishing can be a little wild at times.
Furthermore, his form fluctuates from game to game, one second he’s unplayable and the next he’s wasteful in possession and is easy for the opposition to deal with which is tiring for fans that know what he is capable of. The amount of times I’ve heard fellow fans say that Mane has been “space jammed” is too high to count.
Why is his form like this though? Well as mentioned before, Mane is actually asked to play in a variety of roles as is Firmino and both of these players have seen their form falter a little as a result of this earlier in the season. As Salah has become the main focal point of our attack (rightly so), Mane and Firmino have had to adapt their game to get the best out of him.
Klopp obviously wants Salah near the goal for most of the time and this has required Mane and Bobby to work harder so the Egyptian doesn’t have to as much. In addition to this, the Senegalese has gone from playing on the left to playing on the right depending on the personnel playing and the system being used.
If we play a 4-3-3 then Mane is on the left, a 4-3-2-1 with Keita playing then he’s on the right, with Shaqiri playing he’ll be back on the left again but each time his responsibilities change. Its very similar to how Firmino has gone from being a false nine to a more traditional ‘number 10’ this season to accommodate Salah. As a result of these changes to help Mo, Mane has had to do a lot more work out of possession and I personally think that his form on the ball has suffered a little as a result.
All of this is definitely a factor in Mane’s form but in all honesty he is also a strange player. His finishing is all over the place, he misses easy chances but can also plant one in the top corner from 20 yards, his first touch is so hit and miss, you can see him mess up an easy finish with a heavy touch and then take a 60-yard pass onto the side of his foot before volleying a shot on target.
Sometimes this all happens in the same game. For a player with so much experience he can look so raw at times that you would swear he was still a talented prospect. In my limited knowledge of coaching and the tactical side of football I don’t have an explanation of why he is like this but if we’re being perfectly honest I wouldn’t change him one bit.
Despite how frustrating he can be, he can also be brilliant and he makes our starting eleven every week with no arguments, I wish he was a little more consistent but he usually steps up in the big games and the big moments and his crazy style draws parallels to Klopp’s own style.
Maybe its best just to enjoy the ride.