LIKE every other football piece written at this stage of the season, this comes with the caveats. You know what they are, but here they are anyway — it’s early in the season, Liverpool have only played three games and the subject of this particular piece — Sadio Mane — has only featured in two of them.
But what a start, eh? In his competitive Liverpool debut, away at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium — a ground Liverpool had registered just one win at in 13 times trying — Mane displayed the daring that can dictate the direction of a team. All too often down the years, Liverpool’s mojo has been missing when it counts — overawed at Old Trafford, outgunned at Arsenal, scared at Stamford Bridge. Football’s new order too often led to a blue Monday because Liverpool, it seemed, accepted their lot.
So when Jürgen Klopp’s 2016 vintage turned up at The Emirates with a team-sheet that read “Bring it on” and a performance, for 20 sweet second-half minutes, that had Arsenal rocking on the ropes and reaching for the towel, it was something worth celebrating.
Mane was central to everything the Reds did right that day. Carrying the ball with intent, driving at the defence with pace and purpose; making things happen, showing no fear and topping it off with a goal of real quality. There was no thought for safe. No care for the opposition or the occasion. It was ‘I’m doing this, and you can’t stop me’. This was one of the best Liverpool debuts in years. So what did everyone talk about it after it? Alberto Moreno’s defending.
And Mane? Well it’s ‘too early’, ‘too soon’ and we should ‘wait and see’. We’ve been stung before by dazzling debuts followed by disappointment in the past – see Collymore, Stan; Clough, Nigel and Diouf, El Hadji. But bollocks to all that, when did footie fans — or more to the point, Liverpool fans — become scared of getting excited? When did it become the norm to be all sensible and thoughtful, so considering of context?
It’s not the football I signed up for. Way back when, as a teenager with a bad haircut, I was wooed by Liverpool destroying Crewe Alexandra in the Rumbelows Cup in not dissimilar fashion to what we witnessed at Burton Albion in the same competition (different name obviously) last night.
I bounced out of Anfield 26 years ago believing we’d conquer the bloody world. And we have. Sort of. No league title in that time, granted, but we’ve won everything else. And considering what some football fans go through (looks across the park) that’s not bad is it? It might not be the bastion of invincibility, but when you consider the story of some once-great clubs, reports of Liverpool’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
But I digress. Mane. It felt all very Liverpool of the modern day when he was crocked for the Burnley game as a result of a training ground incident. Why can’t we have nice things? Why always us?
But there he was last night, ripping it up at the Subbuteo-esque surrounds of Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium.
No shrugging, disinterested Premier League prima donna here. No tentative return following a flirt with the treatment table. Instead, again, Mane set the tone — his first thought to attack, to make things happen, to be the difference maker.
And yet still the doubts. Still the handbrake on the emotions. Still the cautious ‘what ifs’. “Obviously we missed him at the weekend,” Jordan Henderson said after the Burton game.
“We can’t just rely on Sadio but he’s been outstanding for us and he gives us something different.”
Henderson’s line above is another being repeated over and over. Liverpool shouldn’t rely on Mane. What if this, and what if that. How about we enjoy the now? At some point there will be questions to answer when he isn’t in the team, but when he is in it is it really a problem if he continues to play like he has so far? Is it a negative if he’s always the positive?
In an ideal world, Liverpool would line up with 11 players on the pitch capable of doing everything in football — defending, attacking, winning matches, showing leadership, inspiring, showing nous, displaying character, and so on. But, we don’t live in one. And in the world we do live in, outstanding individuals providing star quality in a team of OK to good isn’t that rare. Liverpool came so close to you know what with Luis Suarez providing that kind of magic. Steve McManaman was once the Reds’ stand-out creative source and won a cup final almost on his own, Steven Gerrard, too.
It’s happened at other clubs (and international sides), too – there are endless examples. And there are plenty of pointers to suggest many players thrive on that kind of responsibility. Suarez himself spoke of that; of knowing at Liverpool that he had to go out there and make things happen. “It felt sometimes at Ajax and Liverpool that it had to be me,” he said. That might be presented as a negative, but 31 goals says otherwise. He was the man then, and knowing it spurred him on to levels he had never previously reached, aided and abetted by willing and able team-mates.
Maybe Mane can get there, too. He hasn’t looked shy so far. There is constant needle in football analysis of being “a one-man team” or a “two-man team”. It’s been levelled at Liverpool plenty in the past. Ultimately though, if Liverpool are winning games, who cares? It’s back to the Shankly-ism: “A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”
So far, Mane is tinkling the ivories with gusto. He looks like a defender’s nightmare — strong, fast, vision, can score a goal, can stand you up then leave you behind with a burst of pace and he has the engine for 90 minutes of this. He is, after all, only 24 years old.
Jürgen Klopp — inevitably — didn’t wish to create any hype around the player; he doesn’t care much for talking about individuals anyway. But us fans? Those left open-mouthed at The Emirates and applauding a man-of-the-match performance in the League Cup this week? Well, unless you care for the opinion of faceless banter merchants on the internet who love to play troll, what have you got to lose in getting carried away about a player doing the business for the club you love?
Mane looks a player. He looks like he could be the player. Getting carried away? Yes, thanks. It beats looking for ‘bites’ in your bedroom armed with a laptop.
The Senegalese star has arrived at Anfield with question marks hanging over him regarding consistency, and his likely January departure for the African Cup of Nations is already provoking some anxiety. Nothing can be done about the latter, but the former is something Mane — assisted by Klopp and his team — can get to work on.
“Sadio is a little bit unpredictable sometimes,” the then Southampton boss Ronald Koeman said last season.
“He’s still a young player, and young players they need sometimes to be more consistent.”
Past problems with being late also suggest immaturity, so such criticisms seem fair enough. But who is to say he isn’t now capable of a sharp upward curve if his head is in the right place? It is obviously far too early to make Suarez comparisons, but it is worth remembering the jump in performance he made from one season to the next. He arrived with baggage. He was seemingly obsessed with hitting the post for Liverpool. And then…
It can happen. Circumstances can create the breeding ground for huge leaps — the right manager, the right tactics, an understanding with team-mates, improved self-confidence; the feeling that this is the club and the moment to shine.
For all that we saw Stewart Downing shrivel under the microscope after an unfortunate start in a Liverpool shirt (if only he hadn’t hit the bar etc) perhaps the opposite can be true for Mane. A belter of a goal at one of the more difficult grounds to get a result at and a man-of-the-match performance in your very next match. There are worse ways to start a career at a new club.
For all the negativity around his fee, one that many media outlets have reported could eventually rise to being a Liverpool club record, and the fact that he arrived from Southampton (shrugs), it’s worth remembering some of the information that was freely available about Mane before he kicked a ball with a Liverbird on his chest; namely: only four midfielders scored more league goals than Mane’s 11 for Southampton last season. He scored 15 in all competitions. He also notched up six assists.
Similar figures, or better, in red should go a long way to a good season for both individual and team. And if Mane ends up being the main man — good. Because even in that scenario, the likelihood is Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana among others will all benefit from his presence. The opposition can’t mark everyone, and it could herald a possible throwback to the “let them worry about us” approach of old. That seems more likely than a sudden upturn in meanness at the back.
Can we rely on Mane? Can he be a star? Let’s say yes to both. Because he has the attributes and he has the opportunity. The rest is up to him.
In the meantime, get excited. Talk about his potential. Wonder what might be. It’s all part of the game and don’t let anyone tell you any different.