By his comparatively elite numbers, Sadio Mane was a shadow of himself in a season where fatigue and a lack of confidence took centre-stage for the typically smiley winger.
It’s not typical to state that a 16-goal season for a winger is below par, but for Mane, it was just that after years of standard-setting.
The 29-year-old came into the season off the back of being named PFA Fans’ Player of the Year and a member of the PFA Team of the Year after a scintillating 2019/20 that saw him make 34 goal contributions.
Ever-relied upon by Klopp, it was always going to be tough to reach similar feats. And while his work ethic could never be questioned, he cut a frustrated figure at times.
And that Mane himself conceded that it was “the worst season of my career” says a lot.
Sadio Mane, 2020/21
Started: 41 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 7
Unused sub: 0
Overall Season Rating: 6.33 (15th)
Expected drop off?
It has been non-stop football for Mane for nearing on four years, with his last extended chance to put his feet up coming all the way back in the summer of 2017.
Exploits with Liverpool domestically and on the continent coupled with the 2018 World Cup, 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and a short off-season after 2019/20 have left little time to take a breath.
Mane is a supreme athlete, but even the very best need the chance to reset both mentally and physically – and it showed this season.
Perhaps one could not see it when casting an eye to his end of season return of 16 goals and nine assists, but when considering his decision-making and execution it was in big, bold, capital letters and with an underline.
The No. 10 remained ever-present having started 41 of the Reds’ 53 games but his effectiveness took a hit on and off the ball and he arguably played more than first hoped following Diogo Jota‘s injury.
Data from FBref showcased a drop in pressures per 90 minutes compared to last season, decreasing from 16.5 to 15 – with his defensive third actions recording the biggest drop of 3.54 to 2.08 from one season to the next.
A weary mind on top of fatigued legs don’t add up to promising end results, and it was exemplified by his glaring misses and tired execution in front of goal – leading to 18 big chances missed throughout the season.
Take efforts against Aston Villa, Newcastle and West Brom – he would have buried them the previous year.
The pandemic enforcing a stop to football and contracting COVID-19 itself was no reprieve for Mane, who went nine league games without a goal throughout the season, forcing Mohamed Salah to shoulder more of the responsibility.
But Jurgen Klopp hadn’t been worried, saying “each striker in the world knows these kinds of situations. I’m not concerned, but I see it as well. That’s clear, we work on it.”
When the pressure was on, however, he stood up to the task.
Light at the end
Like many of his teammates, the rediscovery of consistency in the XI provided solid ground from which to work from and the No. 10 got back in the thick of it.
It wasn’t to say he was firing on all cylinders and his frustration bubbled to the surface after the win at Man United where he was a late sub and refused Klopp’s hand after the final whistle.
The manager swiftly insisted “everything will be fine” and was quick to put it behind him, and while an unneeded unsavoury moment, it did spark a late rally.
With the top-four on the line, Mane would provide two timely assists at West Brom and Burnley and net the match-winning brace against Crystal Palace on the final day – reacquainting himself with fundamentals to achieve the desired result.
Buoyed by the return of 10,000 fans, Mane was in the thick of the action at Anfield and provided a glimpse at the player we had so sorely missed throughout the season.
His performances, however, did lead to suggestions of Mane being the dispensable one of the familiar front three should the Reds look to freshen up their look in the summer or in the short-term.
With an ageing forward line, it will no doubt be weighed up carefully as Jota looks to have a greater impact and Liverpool look toward another spark with Divock Origi expected to depart.
There is still a lot Mane can offer, there is no doubt about that – his accolades and return say as much – but he is unlikely to yield as much of a return as this very moment.
In turn, the Reds would need to be going big to settle on a decision like that as Klopp and co. will know that he can still perform as the Reds look to return to the top in England and on the continent.
A nearly six-week break will assist in a needed circuit breaker for Mane after non-stop action for four years, as will the injection of fans back in the game as he is a performer after all.
All eyes will be on his response but he’s never given us reason to doubt.
Best moment: Toss up between Chelsea or Palace brace
Worst moment: Needlessly giving Klopp the cold shoulder at Old Tafford
Role next season: Key man but more readily rotated