Sadio: Southampton's Manè of the Moment

It’s one of the oldest footballing clichés, but it often still holds true: a week is a long time in football.

For those wondering what sort of a difference a week can make, take the case of Southampton and one of their marquee signings for the summer, Senegalese winger Sadio Manè. Having gone into the Christmas period a figure of derision among Southampton fans, Manè has finally managed to firmly establish himself in the Premier League, thanks to a trio of vintage performances against London sides Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal in the space of just a week. There is perhaps a sense that Manè has turned around his Southampton career after a disappointing couple of months, setting him up very well for the African Cup of Nations in late January and the rest of the Premier League season to follow.

Obviously, the big shift in perceptions of Manè owes a lot to football’s festive calendar; it’s not often Southampton play three games of such magnitude in a week; but he himself has played his way into form and, as such, deserves plaudits.

The Senegalese winger had a goal record better than one goal every two games at Austrian heavyweights Red Bull Salzburg, but after an equally promising start to life in the Premier League, with positive performances against Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland leading onto a premier goal at home to Stoke, Manè’s form dropped slightly – in tandem with the rest of his team. Limp performances in a string of key games, against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Burnley, saw Manè forced to the bench for the Saints’ pre-Christmas rout of Everton.

In this sense, Manè’s week has been remarkable; his approval ratings among Southampton fans have skyrocketed accordingly. His poor performances in previous weeks had left the impression of a player too raw for top level football, a player who was struggling to make the step-up from the obviously weaker Austrian league to the English top tier.

Mane has hit his best form for the Saints during the current Festive period.

Saints fans could have been forgiven for worrying about quality on the wings following Manè’s drop in form despite his very obvious ability – it takes a while to adapt to a new league and to be proven as a top level player – and as such, the signing of loanee Eljero Elia, the ex-Netherlands international winger whose name somehow still carries some form of magic among football fans despite failing to impress at Werder Bremen seemed a quick fix to the Senegalese speed-demon’s poor form – some people may have been relieved that a Manè replacement had already been found (Elia is perhaps a Manè replacement, though not long term – somebody will need to cover him while he’s at the African Cup of Nations, but otherwise Elia appears a depth signing); now, just days into Manè’s purple patch, such a thought seems preposterous to even consider.

What has certainly helped is Manè’s attitude; the winger can’t be accused of hiding behind other players or other factors such as injury concerns or struggling to adapt over his poor performances; Manè seems to have always made a lot of effort for the Saints, covering ground and attempting to change games even when the final product – whether in goals or assists – hasn’t quite been present.

His role against Chelsea, for example, permitted him to find several different pockets of space in Mourinho’s men’s defence, a ploy which perplexed the league-leader’s rearguard and eventually led to Manè’s opening goal inside twenty minutes; that this role bamboozled the Blues is surprising, given that it’s been a mainstay of Manè’s game all season; one only has to consider the game two days prior at Selhurst Park to see evidence of Manè’s tendency to rotate positions with other players, dropping into midfield, filling in at full back and drifting onto the other flank with regularity; even then, it has been a regular part of an in-form Manè’s game, with notable games where this happened including the victories over QPR and Stoke, and even the loss away to Arsenal earlier in December.

Again on New Year’s Day, this time at home to Arsenal, Manè started vibrantly, and it was his goal – capitalising on a defensive mix-up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny (among others in the Arsenal defence) to net a cheeky, curled lob past a beleaguered Arsenal backline. Injury forced the Senegalese danger-man to depart the game before half time, but his contribution had been made already – through the goal, but also the all-round play which facilitated Southampton’s lead; finding space, creating chances and harrying defenders.

The Senegal international is rubbing shoulders with the Premier League’s most creative assets.

Taking risks is key to the game of a winger, and that said risks didn’t result in much prior to Christmas is probably as much an occupational hazard as it is directly down to Sadio Manè that his goals and assists tallies aren’t higher than they are. It’s certainly easy to see how confidence can improve the game of any player, but it’s perhaps more clearly notable with players tasked with breaking down defences, given that the nature of their position forces them to be a step ahead of the defending team to even carve out an opportunity.

It’s perhaps over-simplistic to explain Sadio Manè’s drop in form from late November to mid-December as entirely confidence-based – many other factors were behind his lean spell – but one would expect form to flood back to Manè after a good performance, a goal, or having been handed several chances by his teammates.

This is what seems to have happened to Manè over the course of the past week; increased confidence has made Sadio the Manè of the moment. It is perhaps regretful for Southampton that they lose their most in-form player just as he’s really beginning to enter his first rich vein of form for the club, but his performances over the past week are a timely reminder of the promise which was quite clearly on show in the opening months of 2014/2015; equally, they’re also a glimpse on what is to come for fans when he returns from international duty, perhaps making it easier for Manè to pick up from where he’s left upon return to St Mary’s.

Also, the fact that Manè has sprung to life since Christmas is at least a re-affirmation (if one was at all needed, it must be added) of Southampton’s transfer policy, which bodes well for the club moving forward this season – with further additions to the squad, not limited to just Eljero Elia, touted in the January transfer window. It is, after all, great to see a young, talented player in such great form, and a young, talented team standing in such good stead after more than half of what was touted to be – and probably ought to have been, but for excellent management – a long, tough season on the South Coast.

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