Sadio Mane appears to be suffering a hangover from last season’s struggles, but is this a permanent decline for the Liverpool forward or nothing to worry about?
The Reds had so many woes to contend with throughout 2020/21, but Mane’s performances were among the most troubling.
Having been a superstar of the Jurgen Klopp era, standing out as one the best left-sided players in world football, he dropped off dramatically last term.
Whether or not Mane was affected by contracting COVID-19 may never be known fully – or if, simply, fatigue set in – but his form completely deserted him.
A welcome summer off would hopefully recharge Mane’s batteries, but in the early weeks of 2021/22, there are signs that his issues haven’t fully gone away.
Start of the decline?
A sad fact of football is that great players drift past their prime, whoever they are.
Steven Gerrard’s legs eventually went, Robbie Fowler peaked in his early 20s and, sadly, Virgil van Dijk will one day resemble a mere mortal.
At 29, there is an argument to say that time is simply catching up with Mane, having given so much to Liverpool over the past five years.
In that period, he has played 43.6 games on average per season.
It could, therefore, only be natural that Mane is past his unplayable best in his 30th year. Then again, Salah is the same age and looks better than ever.
Mane may have rifled home a well-taken strike against Burnley last month, but overall it has been a forgettable start to the campaign for him.
Too often, his electrifying burst of pace past defenders has deserted him, his decision-making has been rash – he has an xG of 1.9 goals but has scored only once – and his touch has been heavy.
Whether it be Reece James before his sending off or Cesar Azpilicueta in the second half, he rarely looked like getting the better of an strong Chelsea rearguard.
He slowed down attacks too regularly, perhaps highlighting a lack of confidence, and it was hard to remember a genuinely telling contribution against 10 men.
So far this season, Mane has averaged a disappointing 67 percent pass completion rate in the Premier League, down from 78.7 percent last year, showing how hit-and-miss he has been in possession.
He is also averaging just 0.7 dribbles per game, whereas he enjoyed 2.3 in 2020/21, despite being way off his best.
Mane has a tally of 13 pressures per match this season compared to 14.9 in 2020/21 and 16.5 the campaign before that, which is telling, too.
This all points towards a player not only out of rhythm but perhaps also one who no longer possesses the same energy levels – something we hoped wouldn’t be the case after a much-needed breather over the summer.
There is, of course, a strong argument to say that it is premature to make a judgment of Mane this early in the season, in terms of his future worth.
There is only a three-game case study to look at, during which time he has still scored once and certainly not disgraced himself.
Mane also had an impressive pre-season, scoring three times and looking a vibrant presence, which makes his current limp showings all the more baffling.
Admittedly, warmup fixtures are not always a perfect gauge of a player’s form, but there was plenty of positivity from supporters regarding Mane’s apparent return to his best.
As players head towards 30, they can be subconsciously written off – could that be the case with Liverpool’s No. 10?
There were murmurings about 30-year-old N’Golo Kante being ‘past it’ this time last season, for example, only for him to end the campaign as possibly Europe’s most influential midfielder.
In fairness to Mane, he has still offered a threat this season and shown a typically team-focused attitude, so in an ideal world, he is just going through the gears.
A crucial season
Liverpool’s summer transfer window has left a lot to be desired, particularly with the failure to bring in more competition in attack.
While the financial impact of COVID-19 should never be ignored, the Reds have still sold players and could afford to bring in someone on top of lone addition Ibrahima Konate.
While Klopp still has a fearsome squad at his disposal, there is now immense pressure on his long-time key men to hit their magnificent best this season.
None more so than Mane – and he knows it.
“I was so disappointed with last season, and passionately so, as I thought I could have done more,” he recently explained.
“Whereas I might have been scoring between 18 and 22 goals a season, then on that occasion it was no longer the case so, of course, I was going to be disappointed.”
Mane added: “I want to score goals, and set up team-mates, even to score 30 goals. Why not?”
Liverpool cannot afford to carry Mane like they had to for the majority of 2020/21 and how he performs after the international break could be critical.
The hope is that his low-key opening to the campaign is no more than a player looking for full match sharpness, rather than a more serious issue.
But there is a lingering concern that we will never quite see the same player who ripped Arsenal‘s defence to shreds on his debut, bamboozled Manuel Neuer at the Allianz Arena and stood out as the best player in a legendary title-winning season.
Should Mane continue to struggle, Liverpool may even look at replacing him next summer, with his current contract expiring in 2023 and the chance to receive a fee for him potentially appealing.
The coming months may give us a more definitive answer – here’s hoping he proves the increasing number of doubters wrong.