Faced with a most unenviable task—walking into Bayern Munich’s home stadium and needing to come away with a win or, at the very least, a scoring draw—Liverpool turned to their streaky African forward, who drove them to a commanding 3-1 victory and into the quarterfinals of the Champions League. No, the Reds’ savior wasn’t Mohamed Salah. It was their other African star, the one who has carried Liverpool during Salah’s slumping start to 2019, the perennially underrated Senegalese winger, Sadio Mané.
For the last two months, Mané has been the best player wearing the Liverpool red (or the less-Liverpool all-gray away kit). He delivered once again on Wednesday with two key goals, including scoring the first and eventually tie-deciding away goal in ludicrous fashion.
Mané has been a machine since late January. From Liverpool’s match against Crystal Palace on the 19th day of the year to now, he’s scored 10 goals in 10 matches across all competitions, with a majority of those in important, high-pressure situations. His goals against Leicester City and West Ham salvaged crucial points for the Pool Boys, while his last four games have featured three two-goal games. He’s climbed all the way up to fifth in the Premier League goalscoring charts, just two behind leader Sergio Agüero’s 18, and one behind Salah.
After two months of uncertainty, dropped points, and a disappointing first leg in the Champions League round of 16, Liverpool’s potential dream season was on the verge of becoming a nightmare. Liverpool dropped 11 out of a possible 27 points dating back to their famous loss to Manchester City at the start of the new year, turning what had been a comfortable lead atop the Premier League table into what is now a one point deficit behind the Sky Blues. Salah hasn’t been much help during this stretch, racking up just three goals in the 13 matches he’s played in 2019. Luckily for Liverpool, they have another world-class forward to turn to, and Mané has proven up to the challenge.
Let’s get this out of the way: Mané is not better than Salah. He’s less consistent, less skilled in about every facet of attacking play, less athletically fearsome (while impressive, Mané’s speed doesn’t compel opponents to organize their entire defensive strategies around it the way Salah’s does), and tends to disappear more than the Egyptian. He also sometimes makes boneheaded, selfish decisions in the box, making him Liverpool’s most frustrating forward in a landslide. (Though in regards to his peculiar decision-making, you learn to take the good with the bad.)
What Mané does provide, though, is a different kind of threat than Salah; while the latter is more of a straight line sprinter and a left-footed sniper, Mané is much more versatile, and in certain situations more dangerous with the ball at his feet. Much of this is due to the fact that he’s almost completely two-footed. ESPN’s Michael Cox pointed this out last month, but it bears repeating after Mané confounded the Bayern defense and thunderstruck goalie Manuel Neuer for the first goal with his ability to turn and shoot in either direction:
Mané’s skill set also allows his team to break down top defenses when the more counterattack-favoring Salah can’t get going in big games. In the first leg at Anfield, Mané was the only player who really got in behind Bayern’s defense, and his wild miss in the 33rd minute would have served as Liverpool’s lasting image had they not rescued the tie in the away leg.
There’s a meme in the soccer analytics community that finishing is largely random and hard to quantify, and that what’s important is getting into position to have chances to finish. I don’t know if I buy that completely, but Mané is getting into positions to score each and every week right now, and on Wednesday, the supposed randomness finally went in his favor. That bodes well for Liverpool as they look down the barrel of an action-packed last two months of the season.
When any two of Liverpool’s three star forwards (Mané, Salah, and Roberto Firmino, who usually does more thankless link-up play and counter-pressing) are clicking, the Reds can beat anyone. Their defense is, behind the revelation that is Virgil van Djik, amongst the world’s best. Their midfield isn’t the most creative, but it’s strong and tireless and defensively sound. If Mané and Salah (who had a wonderful game despite not scoring against Bayern; his assist for Mané’s second is one of the trickiest little passes you’ll see this season) can play like they did under the harsh European lights this week, there’s no reason not to believe Liverpool could end the season winning both the Premier League and the European Cup.
But there’s the rub with Mané, and ultimately why he’s both underrated and overrated in Liverpool’s attacking trident. His consistency leaves much to be desired: In the ten games before his current scorching form, Mané only scored two goals. When he’s off, you’d almost rather have Adam Lallana out there to at least filter the ball to more dangerous players. But when Mané is on fire, like he was on Wednesday and has been for two straight months now, he can be Liverpool’s most important attacking player.
And so, as Liverpool’s other scoring options began to falter in the team’s current stretch of rough results, Mané has turned a corner at the perfect time, and has kept the team alive in both the Premier League and the Champions League. If he can keep that up (a big if, mind you), the walking nightmare could turn back into a dreamland paradise at Merseyside. (Unless, of course, you’re an Everton fan.)