While Sadio Mane has shone on the international stage this season, he has gone somewhat under the radar back on Merseyside.
The Senegal captain led his country to their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations title back in February, before firing them to the 2022 World Cup seven weeks later.
However, while Mane’s achievements this season will have established him as an all-time great in his home nation, at Anfield his form has occasionally been questioned.
The explosive arrival of Luis Diaz, combined with the red-hot form of Diogo Jota and the invariable brilliance of Mohamed Salah, has even cast doubt over his place as a guaranteed starter in the Reds’ attack.
There is no doubt that at times Mane’s end product has been streaky. In fact, he went nine games without a goal between November and January
After a season that Mane himself labelled the worst of his career, his struggles in front of goal this term have led many to worry he may be declining.
However, Mane has quietly put together a hugely underrated season.
While he has not caught the eye in the same way some of his team-mates have, he remains one of the best forwards in the Premier League and an important part of Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Right place, right time
If Mane can be criticised this season, it is for his finishing. He has underperformed his xG by 2.4 goals in the Premier League.
This comes after he racked up just 11 league goals from 15.2 xG last season.
Almost two years of underperformance have come on the back of Mane outperforming his xG by 4.8 in 2018/19 and 4.2 in 2019/20.
The Senegalese attacker’s percentage of shots on target has also dropped over the last two years, from an average of 47.9 percent between 2018 and 2020 to just 37.6 percent last year and 36.1 percent this season.
Despite lacking the ruthless streak he demonstrated when he drove the Reds to European and domestic titles, Mane is still getting into the right positions.
In fact, the No. 10 is getting more high-quality chances than ever before. Mane is averaging 0.58 xG per 90 this season, his best numbers in a Liverpool shirt.
He has already exceeded his xG tally from the Reds’ title-winning season (13.8 xG), despite only making 25 league starts so far this term.
Only Salah (19.0 xG) and Harry Kane (15.0 xG) have accumulated more xG than Mane (14.4 xG) over the course of this Premier League season, while he ranks fifth for xG per 90 among players to have completed at least 10 games.
These numbers are therefore among the highest in the league and are even more impressive considering Mane does not take penalties.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mane leads the league in total non-penalty expected goals (14.4 npxG) in 2021/22. Only Jota (0.68 npxG/90) betters him per 90.
That Mane is taking a high volume of good quality chances is further backed up by the fact he takes 3.3 shots per 90 at an average shot distance of just 12.9 yards.
This puts him in the top two percent of wingers in the league when it comes to the proximity of his efforts to the goal.
Mane is not letting his drop-off in efficiency affect his overall game by becoming too desperate to score.
Instead, he is continuing to get into excellent positions that help the team and give him the best possible chance to continue contributing at a high level.
It is clear, then, that Mane remains a huge threat for the Reds.
His ability to get into dangerous attacking positions has, if anything, gone up a level and his intelligent movement causes opponents constant issues.
Wasteful finisher or proven goalscorer?
While many will point out that xG means little if chances are not taken, it is harsh to criticise Mane’s finishing too much when he has notched 12 league goals and 14 in all competitions.
He is currently averaging 0.48 goals per 90, almost a goal every other game and enough to put him in the 92nd percentile of Premier League wingers.
He is also in the 94th percentile for non-penalty goals.
Despite Mane’s perceived struggles in front of goal, only Salah (20), Jota (14) and Heung-min Son (14) have more Premier League goals than him.
Even with Mane departing for AFCON in January, he has as many goals as pre-season Golden Boot favourites Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Mane has been far from clinical over the last two years – something he will hope to rediscover in the future – his perpetual determination to get himself opportunities has meant he remains one of the best goalscoring wide men in the division.
What does the future hold?
Going forward, Liverpool will have a decision to make about their No. 10’s future this summer.
Much like Salah and Roberto Firmino, Mane is turning 30 and entering the final year of his contract.
While speculation over Salah’s new deal seems to always be in the headlines, much less has been said about his fellow former African Footballer of the Year.
What is not in doubt is that Mane’s ability to work himself a high volume of excellent chances every week will not be easy to replace, whenever he eventually departs.
He may have split opinions at times over the last two years, but he is quietly having an excellent season for Liverpool – and has re-established himself as one of Europe’s most dangerous wingers.