Jack Hallows believes that an opening day brace for Sadio Mané is only the start of what’s to come for the Liverpool attacker this season.
It’s pretty incredible to think that a footballer who plays primarily as a winger, can score 20 goals in 44 appearances, assisting a further eight on top but end up labelled as having a poor season.
Unfortunately for Sadio Mané however, he plays in a front line that last season also featured 27 goal and 18 assist striker Roberto Firmino and of course, the mercurial Mohamed Salah.
If he played in any other team in Europe – aside perhaps from those at which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside – Mané would’ve been revered for his contributions last season.
The Senegalese winger was the only player to score in every single round of the Champions League and while he didn’t register the numbers his fellow attacking teammates did, Mané was frequently at the heart of everything the Reds’ did well going forward.
Especially in the second half of the campaign.
Of course, what people seem to forget, is that after firing out of the blocks last season by winning the Premier League Player of the Month for August and scoring three goals in the Reds opening three games, Mané endured a real spell of bad luck.
His attempt to control a ball at the Etihad Stadium led to his foot colliding with Ederson’s face and subsequently, a red card, while his return from suspension was marred by a hamstring injury sustained on international duty.
For Mané, the months of September through until early December were massively stop-start and even when he was fit, Klopp’s preference to rotate his attackers often meant that only one of Mané or Coutinho would feature at a time.
However, once Coutinho left for Barcelona, Mané was given a change of role that seemed to not only revitalise his game but also bring back his confidence.
Remaining on the left wing, Mané was now tasked with playing a combination of two roles.
The Senegalese international had previously looked to remain wide, stretching the opposition defence in an effort to allow an overload down the right hand side. Thus creating space for the likes of Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Roberto Firmino to exploit.
Now, however, Mané has Andrew Robertson steaming past him on the overlap, creating extra width down the Reds’ left hand side which allowed the Liverpool attacker to move into a more central position. He was effectively operating as the Reds’ ’10’ and left-winger, all in one.
This put Mané in positions in front of goal with far more regularity and it’s no coincidence that from January onwards, his goal output and assist tally both consistently increased.
Including the January 14th league thriller against Manchester City, Mané featured 23 times for the Reds up until the end of the season in this new hybrid position.
He scored 12 goals and assisted 4, including a hat-trick against FC Porto.
Once again, on the opening day of this new Premier League season, Mané was fielded on the left-hand side of the front three. However, as is evident by the player’s heat map, he was anything but a traditional left winger.
Roberto Firmino was found constantly dropping deep in between Mané and Salah to link up with new-boy Naby Keïta, who himself pushed out to the left in support of Robertson, allowing the two quicker of the forwards to take up positions far more akin to inside-forwards than wingers.
The tactic paid dividends, with both getting on the score sheet with Mané, in particular, enjoying a stellar opening day showing.
The forward became Liverpool’s first player to score on the opening day of the season for three consecutive years since John Barnes in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
His first was down to some brilliant work from James Milner initially but the way Mané kept himself onside and anticipated that his teammate would make the cutback, before adjusting his body position to tap into the empty net made the finish look far easier than it was.
His second saw him the beneficiary of some poor work by the linesman but the forward’s instincts to smash the ball home on the turn, knowing exactly where the bottom corner of the net was going to be despite not facing the goal just about typifies Mané as a player when he’s in form.
The fitting competitive debut for his new no.10 jersey which the player is quite visibly proud of, his new celebration confirming as much.
Where Mané started last season on fire and tailed off around Christmas, I fully expect the winger to hit new heights this season, especially given the confidence boost his opening day brace will have given him.
The fact that every side in Europe, let alone England, will be focussing on the equally rapid Egyptian on the other wing will certainly play into Mané’s hands this season, opening up further space for the winger to exploit.
With his new role then putting him in positions in front of goal with far more regularity and the introduction of Naby Keïta – another player who seems to understand Sadio’s game perfectly – I fully expect him to smash the numbers of his 20-goal season out of the park this time round.