Jonathan Wilson writes from the Africa Cup of Nations after watching Sadio Mane miss the crucial penalty for Senegal against Cameroon on Saturday night.
There was a horrible sense of inevitability about Sadio Mane’s penalty miss.
Once Senegal’s initial surge had blown out, once Cameroon dusted themselves down midway through the first half and realised they were still standing and that it was still 0-0, everything pointed to a Cameroon victory on penalties: that’s how they did things in the old days, 15 years ago, when they had a side capable of winning the Cup of Nations – as, indeed, they had in 2002 when beating Senegal in the final.
Nine penalties had been scored. Mane stepped up, eyes wide, face set. Then came a little glance to his left, an obvious tell. Fabrice Ondoa, Cameroon’s excellent young goalkeeper, saw it. He dived to his right, slightly too far as it turned out, but with an upthrust left hand, pawed the ball away. Cameroon were through and the most promising Senegal generation since 2002 were out.
Liverpool have yearned to have Mane back – he returned by private jet on Sunday, and will probably be on the bench against Chelsea on Tuesday – but the question now is what state he will be in. For a few moments on the Franceville pitch he staggered as though in a daze and then he seemed to collapse, falling to his knees, hands over his face, held up only by his teammates, who virtually carried him off the pitch.
Later, he was the first player to leave the Senegal dressing-room, walking briskly through the mixed zone. His anguish was clear. Nobody tried to ask him a question.
There has been a sense in some quarters that Liverpool’s problems over the last month were down to Mane’s absence. His last game was the 2-2 draw at Sunderland on January 2 – when he conceded the late penalty from which Jermain Defoe equalised – and Liverpool have only won once since.
And of course, he has been missed. His pace is a devastating weapon, all the more so because he can accelerate over such a short distance: unlike some fliers, he doesn’t really need space in front of him to get up to top speed. His capacity to attack on the diagonal, hitting the full-back on his weaker side is, if not unique, then certainly very unusual.
But it would be a mistake to think the recent slump has a single cause. It’s not just Mane.
In part, it’s the fixture list. In the five weeks from the 4-1 win over Stoke City, Liverpool will have played 11 games. They will play only 15 in the remaining three months of the season. O
ther teams face fixture congestion, of course, but being in the EFL Cup semi-final creates particular problems (Sunderland, in 2014, were forced to play the first leg of their League Cup semi two days after an FA Cup tie). And given the intensity of Liverpool’s play, the need for proper recovery time is perhaps enhanced.
More worrying in the long term is the fact that there was also a winter slump last season. It had been hoped that a Klopp pre-season might alleviate that. If Liverpool are to keep playing this way, they probably need a larger squad – and it’s at the very least intriguing that there was no move to sign a replacement for Mane when Klopp had hinted strongly in the autumn that he would seek reinforcements in that area.
And most troubling of all is the sense that opponents have worked out a way of playing against Liverpool. Sit deep against them and you can frustrate them – which is, of course, why Liverpool’s record is comparatively so much better against the top sides than those lower down the league. But it’s not quite as simple as that. The ploy has been obvious from day one; the issue is that teams are now more effective at it.
But equally, Liverpool are not as slick as they were. The interchanges round the box, the moments that used to unlock deep-lying defences, are not as effective as they were. Perhaps that’s a matter of confidence. Perhaps that’s to do with the absence of Mane. Perhaps having Adam Lallana playing higher up the pitch has removed some imagination from the midfield. It may be that greater familiarity with Liverpool has honed opposing defences.
With Mane back, with more time between games, the pressure will ease. Liverpool will start winning again. But this slump means that they will now face a fight to qualify for next season’s Champions League and, whether they end up playing in that or the Europa League, the message from the past few weeks is clear: this squad, as it stands, is neither strong nor deep enough to cope with the demands of European football playing the way it currently does.