JÜRGEN Klopp, wide-eyed, puffed his cheeks and exhaled. He couldn’t find the words to articulate what he was seeing on the Maloney Field at Stanford University, but he didn’t need them.
Later that evening, at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto, Liverpool’s first-team development coach Pep Lijnders said it all: “Sadio Mane — phwoar, machine!”
During the club’s pre-season camp in California, it was evident there were no internal concerns over whether the £30 million summer recruit from Southampton would have issues settling in or making the impact envisaged.
Phil Coutinho was shocked by just how fast he was. There were shouts of ‘Yessss, Sadio’ from Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson as the Senegal international would drop back to nick possession before blitzing towards goal in a blur. Now you see him, now he scores.
He had everything: the right run, the decisive pass, the desire to work as hard as he could wow. The players marvelled at their new teammate, aware that his talents fitted in so wonderfully and effectively alongside theirs.
The coaching staff were enthused to work with a game-changer who was willing to learn, looking to grow and possessed an exceptional attitude as well as appetency to succeed.
What of the fans, then? There were doubters in mass early on, but ‘Oh Mane, Mane’ was quickly in motion.
There are few footballers capable of regularly creating moments that stay with you, that stick to you. You remember exactly where you were when it happened, how you reacted, how it made you feel.
Like in the 63rd minute against Arsenal on the opening weekend of the season, when he chopped between Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers while cutting in from the right to find the top corner on his Liverpool debut.
‘Oh my god!’ was Klopp’s immediate thought, with the German picking the goal out as one of his moments of the campaign thus far.
Or when Christmas joyfully came early at Goodison; his late, great winner painting the air red and twisting home hearts into miserable knots. The 96th minute that shook Merseyside.
What about on Saturday, when in two minutes he provided life after the football death since the turn of the year as he closed the casket on Tottenham? Anfield lifted, loud, assertive.
Mane’s double last weekend took his tally to 11 for the season and combined with his four league assists, he tops the table for direct contribution to Liverpool’s league goals.
Why has he been so effective for the Merseysiders? Of course, there is his scorching speed, which allows the Reds to transition quicker and offers them a dangerous, direct attacking outlet. He will run at you, and he will beat you.
But the 24-year-old has all the other tools for offensive aggression, a fundamental tenet of Liverpool’s blueprint. He is strong in the dribble, has the stamina to keep pushing and probing, is skilled at swift interplay, and takes the initiative to create more incisive final third play.
Mane draws markers into a situation they do not want — one v one — in which he’s favourite to triumph, thus disorganising the opponent’s defensive line. His movement is varied: angled, straight, inside, outside — he is unpredictable in a very effective way. He is always seeking to be an option.
The shared understanding and chemistry between the Senegalese, Roberto Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana results in better co-operation between lines as well as with pressing actions.
Despite Mane’s obvious individual brilliance, he is far from a soloist; always aware of what his contribution needs to be in relation to his teammates and the situation. Unselfish and unrelenting like the rest of Liverpool’s attacking quartet, he fully subscribes to the ‘collective first’ ethos.
All of the above-mentioned attributes were showcased against Tottenham. For the first goal, once Lallana and Firmino stole and secured possession, Mane identified the space vacated by Toby Alderweireld as the area Spurs could best be exploited. As Gini Wijnaldum took possession, the winger paced across Ben Davies, highlighting where the pass should be played, with the Dutchman executing it to perfection.
Mane got a yard on the defender, took him out of play and created a one-on-one with Hugo Lloris, whom he lifted the ball over and into the back of the net.
For the second, as a long pass is directed towards Eric Dier, the forward made the decision to aggressively pressure him and sprinted over to dispossess the England international. Firmino supported him wonderfully, and as they both charged forward, Mane rolled the ball out to the other side of the box instinctively knowing Lallana would’ve darted into that area.
Lloris saved from the 28-year-old and then the Brazilian, but he could not thwart the speedster blasting an accomplished finish into the roof of the net.
The French goalkeeper had to produce two sharp saves in quick succession to stop Mane from becoming the first Liverpool player to score a hat-trick against Tottenham since Phil Boersma in 1974.
And it’s only the beginning.
The attacker, having come from practically nothing and having sacrificed everything to get to where he is now, is married to advancement.
“I’m someone who likes to listen, who likes to watch and who likes to learn,” he told Goal. “I’m still young and building myself and I always want to improve. Every day is another chance to work hard and to go closer to being successful.”
Mane’s manners come faster than he can motor: he always greets, needlessly apologises for his English, checks if the interview has gone okay, and thanks you for your time.
Explosive and steely on the pitch, he is reserved and light-hearted off it. Fiercely proud of where he comes from, his people, his story — Mane is a real-life superhero to young and old in Senegal.
And at Liverpool, he will continue producing the moments that stay with you, that stick to you. Enjoy it, enjoy him.
It’s only the beginning.