IN spite of the dull tedium of an international break, when things are going as well as they are you can’t help but reflect on the little things that makes football so great. The drama of a last minute winner, the needle of a derby game, and of course when some berk falls down the steps rushing to his seat for the second half and spills hot Bovril all over himself. What a game it is!
There’s also the unanticipated brilliance of it. When you’ve been made to feel a bit of a wally, but sometimes in the most unexpectedly wonderful ways. This recently happened to me (and it’s safe to assume, several others).
I remember being close to the point of fume over the summer when I heard that Liverpool were actively pursuing Sadio Mané. It wasn’t the Southampton thing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It was more related in particular to who he wasn’t.
I had gotten completely swept up in the romanticism of Liverpool signing Mario Götze. A player once anticipated to be the ‘German Messi’ who had been an integral part of Jürgen Klopp’s great Borussia Dortmund side at such a young age, who then broke Klopp’s heart by joining Bayern Munich, only to struggle amongst the big names and expectation at the Allianz Arena under now Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
The stage was set, the story was ready to be written. Götze’s redemption would be that he would return to his ‘football father’ Klopp at Liverpool, ready to rediscover his form, fulfil his potential and stick one on Guardiola as Liverpool beat City to the title, with Klopp lifting Götze onto his shoulders as the World Cup winner raised the Premier League trophy above his head.
I may have over-committed to that rumour a tad as once Götze turned around and said he didn’t fancy it, Liverpool and Klopp moved on and the dream stayed just that. To be filed away with the one where I score the winner in the cup final and the one where Shakira realises how ugly Gerard Pique is and how handsome I am and runs away with me to a little getaway in Bognor Regis… but I digress.
What irked me about the Mané link was not that I thought he was a particularly bad player – he’d shown against us exactly how good he could be – but that he wasn’t Götze, or more to the point, he was an entirely different kind of player. That to me set off an alarm that there was a disconnect yet again between what the manager wanted and what he would get. He’d asked for a Götze sofa and the club was buying him a Mané lamp.
Of course it has since become apparent that this theory was complete and utter bollocks. Klopp wanted Mané and, having been so hard for me to see over the summer, it is now astonishingly obvious why.
Götze, meanwhile, is struggling back at Dortmund, scoring just once in 11 games and has recently admitted that he is unlikely to recapture the form he showed as a teenager, while Mané has been one of the early season shining lights not only at Liverpool, but in the entire league.
It was announced over the weekend that Mané has been nominated for the African Player of the Year award, showing that the world is standing up and taking notice of his progression as a player. The fact that former footballer and birthday enthusiast Yaya Toure is also nominated does detract from the honour a tad, but it is still quite an achievement.
That I was so disappointed with the signing of Mané just three months ago compared to how thoroughly delighted I am that he is ours now is another reminder of why this game is so great. That it can spring such wonderful surprises on you like this almost makes up for when it has gone the other way.
Another plus of his excellent form is that if he keeps it up, the add-ons will apparently push the fee up to around £36million, which would wipe Andy Carroll out of the record books as our most expensive player. In fact I was up for splashing £40m on Ragnar Klavan just to achieve the same thing.
But what exactly is it that has made Mané so great?
The obvious starting point is the phenomenal way he has linked up with fellow net-botherers Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. So often when new players come in and it doesn’t quite work you convince yourself that they might just need to learn each other’s games or that it will gel after a few months. The sort of things we keep hearing about Manchester United’s expensively-assembled side. Then you see Mané come in, take one look at Phil and Bobby and say “These two are boss, aren’t they? Sound, let’s do this.” Because he’s very quick to pick up the lingo as well you see.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his whole attitude since arriving. When he was at Southampton you got the feeling that there was a certain arrogance there. He often looked unimpressed with things, didn’t celebrate goals as if he was enjoying himself all that much, rarely seemed to smile and got the odd red card for really silly stuff. So far at Liverpool he’s barely stopped smiling, is eager to join in with celebrations of goals he didn’t even score and apart from the odd booking, has kept his nose pretty clean on the disciplinary side of things.
You may have already read the excellent piece from Melissa Reddy for Goal.com on the Senegalese sensation, which perhaps unearths the real reason for his apparent increase in enjoyment of the game. He’s finally playing for Klopp.
After being linked with Klopp’s Dortmund while at Red Bull Salzburg, Mané recalls “I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it — that he [Klopp] wanted to meet and thought I could help his team, who were so good. I used to watch them all the time. Things didn’t work out back then and it was frustrating, but that’s life — nothing just comes easy.
“I told myself to just carry on working hard, push myself and something big would come. I did that. I went to Southampton, I played well and then, Klopp wanted me again.
“Now I’m lucky enough to be working with one of the best managers in football. It was meant to happen and I am very happy to be learning all the time from him.”
When Mané scored that belter against Arsenal the first thing he did was run to his manager and jump on his back. The manager had his player and the player had his manager.
As well as he is playing, the main reason I felt compelled to write this particular article on him was about the effect I think he’s having on the rest of the team. It had been so long since we had someone of his ilk that I’d almost forgotten how much we needed it.
It’s something we’ve clearly missed since Raheem Sterling left for pastures rich, and why it was such a shame that things didn’t work out for Jordon Ibe here. Perhaps the reason many talked Ibe up after Sterling’s departure was due to a desperate hope that he would push on as someone with his skill set getting to a consistently high level of performance was something this Liverpool team needed badly. Enter Mané.
He has been excellent in most games he’s played for Liverpool so far, but what’s been great has been the games where he hasn’t been quite on it. His touch has perhaps let him down or his shooting has been a bit wayward, but he still has such an effect on the team that it mainly doesn’t matter. The threat of him simply being there means that the opposition needs to stand off and be aware of him, which allows his teammates, Firmino in particular, to take advantage of the resulting space. He is always a threat on through balls, he’s a keen and pacy dribbler and is good enough at shooting that defenders can’t stand off him for too long. He even puts in a good defensive shift as well.
Just three months into his Reds career Mané has already won a club player of the month award and a PFA Player of the Month award. He is currently Liverpool’s top scorer in the league, and has kept defences guessing with a mix of goals. His solo effort against Arsenal, a great link-up with Daniel Sturridge against Leicester, a long-range strike against Hull, a calm volley against West Brom, and then a header and a tap-in against Watford. He’s scoring all kinds of goals, and is showing no signs of letting up.
The second against Watford in particular was so heart-warming. Letting Jordan Henderson’s pass go through his legs, before getting in the box knowing that Firmino was good enough to find him. It’s taking those risks and trusting his teammates that makes goals like that. They don’t just happen.
There was a general consternation from the fanbase that Mané was yet another signing from Southampton. It’s a bit odd that it’s seen as a slight on Liverpool that they sign lots of Southampton players. They’re a really good team with lots of very good players. They also happen to be in a position where they’re just behind a lot of bigger teams, so it makes sense that if you can, you try and pick off some of their better players to strengthen yourself and weaken an opponent.
Our signings from Southampton have been Adam Lallana, who is currently one of the best players in the league, Dejan Lovren, who has become an excellent defender after a rocky start, Nathaniel Clyne, the best right-back in the league, Mané, who as we’ve established is ace, and Rickie Lambert, who… okay that was an error in judgement but only cost a few million and that goal/celebration at Aston Villa was probably worth the fee alone. Just ask Lucas Leiva.
Saturday afternoon will see Mané return to his old haunt, to hopefully haunt his old team. Last year Liverpool absolutely battered Southampton at their place in the League Cup, then for 45 minutes in the league game. Then Mané came on and single-handedly destroyed us. This time we’ve got him. Let’s see how they like it.
I’ve gone from hoping that the Mané deal would fall through to hoping that Senegal get thrown out of the African Cup of Nations before January. I think the Reds will be fine without him as the likes of Sturridge and Divock Origi can ably step in, while Sheyi Ojo will hopefully be fit by then to offer more pace and width should it be necessary, but not seeing Mané tearing apart Premier League defences in the New Year will be a shame.
For his pace, his directness, his goals, his assists, his celebration-copying, his tight-fitting shirts I can only assume have the word ‘Youth’ on the collar, and his wonky Premier League badges (seriously, on all his shirts the lion is looking up at the floodlights for some reason), Sadio Mané is fast becoming one of my favourite Reds.
I have metaphorical Bovril all over myself, and I couldn’t be happier.