As Liverpool’s campaign meanders towards an unfulfilling climax, Jurgen Klopp is pinning his hopes on the idea that normal service will resume when key players and fans return. The resuscitation process needs more than a reunion with long-term absentees. Liverpool’s post-Christmas slump is notable for the malfunctioning of those whose Anfield legend is secure, but whose individual form has dipped.
No-one is suffering more than Sadio Mane, who has been unrecognisable from the player who has proven to be one of the most important Liverpool signings of the last 30 years.
How serious are Mane's problems?
The cold data confirms Mane’s dip. The 29-year-old has only eight Premier League goals this season, averaging 0.27 per match. He scored 18 league goals a year ago. Mane’s shooting accuracy is down to 37 per cent (a ten percent drop on 2019/20) and his numbers have decreased in the more contentious ‘expected goals’ metric. Surprisingly, according to Opta’s stats, Mane already has seven more shots than all of last season, supporting Jurgen Klopp’s contention that of all Liverpool’s issues in their failed title defence, creating chances is not one of them.
Mane is currently scoring with only 9.5 percent of his shots, which compares unfavourably with the most prolific marksmen who score between 20-30 percent of their goal attempts.
These numbers support what the naked eye tells us, Mane is lacking his usual composure, either rushing opportunities or hesitating with time and space in the penalty area. Despite that, Mane is averaging more tackles, blocked shots and interceptions this season than last year, reflecting the fact that he and his teammates have had to spend more time compensating for the loss of midfielders and defenders.
This suggests that his issue is more psychological than physical. There are valid reasons for Mane to re-energise his mind as much as his body before next season.
Why fatigue is his biggest issue
“I don’t think I have had a holiday in seven years,” Mane quipped in August 2019, declaring ‘tiredness is all in the head’. The comments are more relevant two years on.
Since joining Liverpool five years ago, Mane has scurried along on football’s hamster wheel meeting his domestic and international commitments. That’s before we consider the strains of lockdown life for a player who has committed thousands to the Covid relief effort in his home village in Senegal. Mane’s last two seasons have been especially unrelenting, each blending into the next.
In the summer of 2019, Mane played the Champions League final on June 1 and then dashed off from the celebrations to prepare for the African Nations Cup, which ran from June 21 to July 19. Senegal reached the final so Mane missed all of Liverpool’s pre-season, rejoining his club four days before their first Premier League game in which he played the last 16 minutes. He would miss only three of his club’s subsequent league and Champions League fixtures.
The pandemic deprived every player of thorough conditioning for the 2020-21 campaign. That was bound to impact some more than others. Only two Premier League attackers from the ‘big six’ clubs have played more minutes than Mane in the last four seasons — teammate Mohamed Salah and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. In that time Mane has played over 1,000 more minutes than Harry Kane and just short of 6,000 more than Sergio Aguero. Fourth on that list, just behind Mane, is Roberto Firmino.
Sterling’s numbers help explain why he has been rested so often by Pep Guardiola this year. Klopp does not have the luxury of having Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez as high-class attacking alternatives, particularly after Diogo Jota’s mid-season injury, and Mane is paying the price.
For all that, Mane's decline is not simply down to him — those around him are not helping. After last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle, Andy Robertson summed up a recurring Liverpool problem. “We were so good at seeing out games and we can't do that just now,” he said.
Over the previous two years, Liverpool needed only to score first for the match to be under their control and effectively over. Now their forwards play like they know they must score two or three to win. As the chief goal-getters, this is part of the mental baggage Mane and Mohamed Salah are carrying. So to say Liverpool’s biggest recent issue is lack of goals is simplistic twaddle. It is all part of the knock-on effect of losing the defenders and midfielders who brought stability and protection.
It is not just that Virgil Van Dijk is not around, it is the inability to win the ball back high up the pitch as quickly and as often without Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, and natural caution of Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to continuously overlap Mane and Salah because they are less certain their forays will be covered.
Every zone of Klopp’s team has become vulnerable under pressure. The longer the season has progressed the more that sense of insecurity has impacted on the once ultra-reliable strikers.
What are the solutions?
There seems to be an appetite for Klopp and Fenway Sports Group to rip up everything that was good before this abnormal season and rebuild — but that will simply not happen. Whether that’s the wisdom of experience, financial compulsion or blind faith remains to be seen.
Mane, Salah and Firmino will be 29 heading into next season, so there is juggling to be done between short-term devotion and long-term planning. Jota threatens to break-up the established front three. But rather than offload those he loves, Klopp must relieve their burden.
Mane and Firmino’s loss of form has magnified a lack of trust in the understudies, with Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unable to get into an underperforming front line. Alternatives must be found.
Mane should also benefit from a relatively stress-free summer, which is his first since 2017 with no international tournament. He can book that holiday and rest body and mind.
That, along with the return of injured stars and a vibrant Anfield confirming the last eight months an anomaly, may prove rumours of Mane’s demise greatly exaggerated.