Sadio Mane‘s poor form hasn’t always stood out as much as others this season, but Liverpool must see him return to his best in order to help save their campaign.
In decades to come, who will be seen as the true superstar of the Reds’ title-winning 2019/20 season?
There are clear front-runners for that accolade, from the incomparable Virgil van Dijk at the back to relentless top goalscorer Mohamed Salah.
It should always be Mane who is viewed as the hero of the campaign, though.
Liverpool’s No. 10 found an extraordinary level as the Reds finally ended their long wait for Premier League glory, with 18 goals and seven assists in the competition still not doing his all-round influence justice.
It felt like Mane dragged Jurgen Klopp‘s men through some games with his deadly blend of pace, unpredictability and sheer will to win, embodying every fan who was so desperate to end the barren run.
The last-gasp winner at Aston Villa was a standout moment, but winning efforts against the likes of Wolves, Norwich and West Ham were priceless, too.
It may have been Jordan Henderson and Kevin De Bruyne who scooped the end-of-season prizes, but nobody impacted matters as much as Mane.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of this season, with the 28-year-old a pale imitation of the footballer who stood out as arguably the best left-sided player in the world last year.
A season of struggles
Mane actually started 2020/21 with a usual spring in his step, looking like he was going to return every bit as potent as before.
Two goals at Chelsea were match-winning, while Arsenal and Everton both felt his wrath in the opening five league matches.
As time has passed, however, Mane’s impact has become increasingly lifeless, particularly by the elite standards he has set.
That’s not to say he has been anonymous, with the odd contribution thrown in, but it has been Salah who has carried an attack that has rightly come in for criticism.
Roberto Firmino‘s woes have been well-documented, and while his year-long dip is now a cause for concern, it has largely allowed Mane to get off scot-free.
Incredibly, the Senegalese has only scored twice at Anfield all season in all competitions – the aforementioned strike against Arsenal and the opening goal in the 1-1 draw with West Brom.
Only three league goals have come his way in the past five months, while his assist for Diogo Jota at Wolves last week was just his second in 2021 so far.
Mane has a shooting accuracy of just 38 percent this season, with his average of 47 percent in 2019/20 comfortably superior.
This is despite his average of touches in the penalty area being comfortably higher per 90 minutes (8.8) than in any other campaign during his time with Liverpool, according to FBref.
Delving deeper, Mane’s goal creating actions (“the two offensive actions directly leading to a goal, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls”) are down considerably from last season, from 0.52 per 90 to 0.37.
Put bluntly, it has been a significant drop-off in productivity from one of the biggest stars of the Klopp era.
When you think of Mane, one thing that will always stand out is his mentality, with the forward willing to fight until the death, rarely finding himself out of the action.
This current version is a more muted presence, though, with his normal edge too often nowhere to be seen.
His attempted pressures per 90 (14.0) are at their lowest in his time at Liverpool, though his success rate (35%) is at its highest, suggesting this is partly due to a change in approach.
Either way, Mane’s form is affecting others as well, not least Andy Robertson, with the pair’s usual telepathy non-existent for a large chunk of the campaign.
The left-back hasn’t assisted since the 7-0 rout of Crystal Palace before Christmas and it’s no coincidence that his slump has occurred at the same time.
With Liverpool in the middle of an almost three-week spell without a match, Mane could benefit more than most.
Granted, 28-year-old is on international duty with Senegal and won’t be afforded a complete rest, but a change of scene will hopefully work wonders.
Back to his best?
Prior to the break, there were a few signs of life from Mane, who may not have been at his unplayable best, but contributed significantly against both RB Leipzig and Wolves.
The No. 10 also created a monstrous nine chances in the 1-0 loss to Burnley in January, which was just one fewer than his output in the following eight games combined.
He now needs to take those hints of a comeback with him and go up another level when Liverpool return to action, starting away to Arsenal.
Such is Mane’s standing as a world-class player, he has it in him to turn the Reds’ season around, if not single-handedly then at least something close to that.
He has looked a weary figure, perhaps not helped by contracting COVID-19 last year, but the hope is that this time without a game has done him the world of good.
Liverpool are unlikely to qualify for the top four or win the Champions League through defensive brilliance, so it is up to the attack to come alive.
Salah is relatively blameless and continues to deliver, while Jota is back fit and looking a threat, so if Mane returns to the player he was this time last year it could be key.
Just a blip
Mane turns 29 on the day Liverpool are due to host Villa on April 10 and his advancing years will inevitably lead to talk about him peaking as a player.
There have been times this season when he has looked short of that electrifying burst of pace he is known for, but it would be knee-jerk to start writing him off.
There is every chance that illness and fatigue have played a part in this dip, as well as an understandable drop in confidence, with Mane still having so much to offer.
He is a remarkable footballer who will bounce back eventually – if it isn’t this season, then it will happen in 2021/22.
In terms of Liverpool’s campaign being rescued, though, they need the real Mane back once Klopp and his players reconvene.