PORTO, PORTUGAL - Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Liverpool's Sadio Mane celebrates scoring the third goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st leg match between FC Porto and Liverpool FC on Valentine's Day at the Estádio do Dragão. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The tactical tweak that has allowed Sadio Mane to return to form

After Sadio Mane‘s hat-trick in the 5-0 win away to Porto, Michael Gun-Why highlights how a change in tactics has prompted his upturn in form.

Mane is back. After a troublesome season in which he has struggled to regain the scintillating form he showed last year, Mane is back. And how.

Or so the common narrative of the past week has gone.

However, the understandable praise and delight has masked a tactical tweak that may just be the key to Liverpool’s success for the remainder of this season.

To begin it is worth considering why Mane hasn’t hit the heights of last season. Whilst he has struggled with injury, specifically his autumn layoff with a hamstring problem, even before then Mane was not in sparkling form.

In a team of entertainers, as one of the ‘Fab Four’ (pre-Coutinho’s departure), Mane was the least important.

Why? Mane hadn’t lost a yard of pace, he’d lost a yard of space.

WATFORD, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 12, 2017: Liverpool's Sadio Mane looks dejected after missing a chance during the FA Premier League match between Watford and Liverpool at Vicarage Road. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Shifted to the left, with Salah on the right of a front three, Mane struggled. Mane is a speed merchant who specialises in shunting the ball past defenders and legging them.

Predominantly right-footed, when he’s on the right, with the ball on his toe, he’s just a quick flick into space and he’s gone.

Out on the left, with the ball in his right instep, dragging it across the face of the defender, he has been a yard behind where he was last season.

At least when he played. Before Coutinho was sold to Barcelona, it was rare that the ‘Fab Four’ all played together. It was Coutinho who, cutting in from the left, lit up the team.

Coutinho, like Salah, could skin three defenders in a phone box, but Mane needs the space.

After his poor form, he started 2018 playing Burnley as the only one of the ‘Fab Four’ on the pitch.

Wednesday night’s performance was different: Mane wasn’t restricted to the left. Instead, the front three were far more interchangeable than recently.

Aside from his first goal, more a ‘keeper error than a quality strike, Mane’s goals were when he popped up in the centre or the right.

Liverpool's James Milner (John Walton/PA Archive/PA Images)

Furthermore, not only were the front three more interchangeable, the second key tactical tweak was the introduction of James Milner.

Milner’s game intelligence, experience and crucially his ability to work the left flank unleashed Mane.

Who stepped inside and saw his shot rebound off the post for Salah to slot home? Milner. Who shifted left when Mane won the ball for the counter-attack goal he finished? Milner. Who broke down the left onto a Mane pass and intelligently squared for Firmino? Milner.

Milner is the only current central midfielder who is adept at crossing and passing with creative accuracy down the left side of the pitch.

It wasn’t Jordan Henderson or Georginio Wijnaldum who were on the scene for Liverpool’s goals and it wouldn’t have been Emre Can either.

PORTO, PORTUGAL - Wednesday, February 14, 2018: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp celebrates after the 5-0 victory over FC Porto during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st leg match between FC Porto and Liverpool FC on Valentine's Day at the Estádio do Dragão. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Klopp’s clever tactical switches have balanced the team, unleashed Mane and brought the best out of Milner—an experienced player who, importantly, like Mane, is fresh for the business end of the season.

Klopp was always intending to drop Coutinho deeper, into the role of a midfield playmaker, but evidently this left the middle of the park far too exposed.

It might not have been all by design given Coutinho’s departure, but Klopp’s tactical tweaks and the refashioned Liverpool team of Wednesday night, with Virgil van Dijk coming to the fore as well, may well be better prepared to win the bigger games that we’ve got coming up between now, and hopefully, just maybe, May.

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