Liverpool’s recruitment strategy under American owners FSG has been patchy to say the least, so a few eyebrows were raised when they paid more than £30 million for Southampton wide man Sadio Mane. The Senegalese international netted 11 Premier League goals last season, but many harboured doubts as to whether he had the consistency to flourish at a club of Liverpool’s stature. However, the early signs are most encouraging. An outstanding league debut at Arsenal on the opening weekend was capped of by a spectacular goal, and Mane turned in another impressive display in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw away at Tottenham Hotspur yesterday.
On the face of it, the numbers suggest Mane had a fairly quiet game. He had one shot on goal, created on chance, had just two take-ons and completed only 60% of his passes. However, it was his off the ball movement and runs in behind Spurs’ advanced full backs that really caught the eye in a vibrant Liverpool display. If there is a way to hurt Spurs, it is in the channels between centre back and full back. Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are encouraged to squeeze up the pitch, which leaves plenty of grass in behind which Mane spun into constantly.
Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy is based on a speedy transition from defence to attack, with his wide players sprinting into the space vacated when the opposition is out of shape. Mane has given Liverpool this weapon. After the departure of Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez, Liverpool were too often one paced and filled with players who like to come towards the ball. Adam Lallana is a good example; a fine footballer to be sure, but lacking the dynamism to be wide forward in Klopp’s system. He has been converted into a central midfielder and is reaping the benefits. There is even the argument that Philippe Coutinho should be moved into a deeper, central role and Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge introduced to give Liverpool even more incision.
As Jamie Carragher eluded to on Sky Sports yesterday, Mane and Coutinho adopted narrow starting positions. Firstly, this puts Liverpool in a good position to stop opposing teams playing out from defence into midfield easily. However, it also means that they can occupy the penalty area and get into goalscoring positions when Liverpool attack. Roberto Firmino led the line for Liverpool yesterday, not an orthodox centre forward, so it was essential that there were runners from elsewhere making runs into the box and Mane was a big part of this.
His greatest strength is the fact he can run with the ball as well as make good runs without the ball, which is a difficult combination to find in forwards. Marco Reus performed this role for Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team; Mane is not quite as silky and technically gifted as Reus, but breaks with the same speed and is more unpredictable. Like many of Liverpool’s attacking assets, the only doubt is if he can produce consistency. On their day, Mane, Coutinho and Sturridge can do any team serious damage, but have a tendency to be a bit streaky.
The only concerning aspect of his display yesterday was his rashness in the challenge. After a first half booking, Mane was fortunate not to be dismissed after a couple of late challenges in the second half. Those challenges were the result of him losing the ball. Klopp wants his team to counter-press after losing possession, but it has to be done in a measured fashion. At times, it seemed that Mane was lunging in out of frustration which is something he will have to manage in future.
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