Prior to Sunday’s match between Liverpool and Middlesbrough, which the Reds won 3-0 to cement a top four finish, Steven Gerrard and Sadio Mane walked out onto the Anfield pitch together.
The former Liverpool captain honoured the Senegalese forward for his place in the PFA Team of the Year – with Gerrard himself previously selected on a record eight occasions – in his first season at Anfield.
Mane also picked up the club’s Player of the Season and Player’s Player of the Year awards a fortnight ago, another indication of the impact the 25 year old has had since joining from Southampton last summer.
The £34m fee may have raised eyebrows, but Mane has repaid the club spectacularly this season, contributing thirteen goals and seven assists in all competitions as Liverpool managed to qualify into the playoff round for next season’s Champions League.
That alone justifies Mane’s fee, yet there is far more to come from Liverpool’s new right-winger.
Jurgen Klopp enjoyed a reasonably successful transfer market last summer with Joel Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum, but Mane is by far his best signing thus far for Liverpool.
Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana have both produced excellent individual campaigns for Liverpool this season. Had either of the duo been declared the year’s best player for Liverpool, then they would have been worthy winners.
Yet Mane’s impact in his debut season, both on and off the pitch, justifies his selection over Coutinho and Lallana. At the moment, he is Liverpool’s most important player.
Undeniably, Mane’s greatest asset is his pace. He is far from a one-trick pony, but his electric speed creates havoc for defences and nightmares for any left-back that has to face up against him.
Mane’s presence in the side simultaneously improves the threat of Liverpool going forward and weakens the threat of the opposition to Liverpool’s defence.
Left-backs are more reluctant to venture forward, fearing the open space that Mane could vacate on any potential counter-attack – a potent and devastating tactic for Liverpool when Mane is in the side.
Consequently, opposition teams in general offer more space for the likes of Coutinho and Lallana when they are preoccupied with Mane’s threat in behind their defence – even defensive sides that tend to ‘park the bus’ when playing at Anfield.
Even on a bad day, Mane’s package of pace, trickery and skill keep defences on alert, which can lead to mistakes and poor tactics by these defences as a result. Therefore, Mane’s sheer presence on the pitch, let alone his performances, improves Liverpool’s chances of success in matches.
When Mane plays, results such as Liverpool’s 6-1 victory over Watford become realistic and even frequent, as the first half of the season proved.
When Mane is absent, then Anfield witnesses a sharp decline in form, including only two points from a possible nine in consecutive matches against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Southampton.
This season, Mane has been the only player in Liverpool’s squad able to offer these qualities, hence the struggles the team has had in periods when the Senegalese international has been unavailable.
Liverpool’s title challenge collapsed in January when Mane was at the African Cup of Nations, with Liverpool also exiting both domestic cup competitions in the same month.
Moreover, once Mane was ruled out for the season, with injury in the Merseyside Derby at the start of April, Klopp’s side struggled and scrapped for wins, barely finishing in the top four.
Liverpool’s dependence on Mane should be lessened in the summer as Klopp appears keen to sign another speedy forward as part of Liverpool’s anticipated summer splurge. Yet only eleven months into his Liverpool career, Mane has created a legacy by illustrating Liverpool’s potential going forward.
Klopp’s Liverpool benefit from pace out wide by the two forwards that operate either side of the striker in the German’s 4-3-3 formation, hence it would be no surprise if a left-winger was recruited this summer. Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt may now appear unlikely but the position itself still needs addressing.
Regardless, Mane’s impact, and the search for more players like him, demonstrates how Klopp wants Liverpool to attack, providing the exhilarating, electric football that was on display for the first six months of the season. That now needs to be extended to an entire season, and then season after season.
Mane has been central in nearly all of Liverpool’s excellent form this season, hence why he has already become their most important player. If he can become clinical and improve his goalscoring record, whilst remaining fit, then that right-wing birth will be his for a very long time.
Age is on his side.
With talk of a statue and legendary status representing reasons for Coutinho’s possible long-term commitment to the club, Mane himself could one day earn similar rewards if he continues to improve.
Other superclubs will inevitably glance towards Mane if he does move to another level next season, but unquestionably the best place for him to excel is with Klopp at Anfield, as his style of play will remain pivotal to Liverpool as long as Klopp remains in charge.
If Mane does remain at Anfield, and Klopp can find more Manes, then the Liverpool project could soon fulfil its target of regularly challenging for trophies and titles once again.