Lately, the soccer-watching world has been in the midst of a (quite understandable) inquest into the mysterious affliction affecting Liverpool in 2017. It seemed like once the calendar switched, the club that had most convincingly staked its claim as the Premier League’s second-best team this season, the one with the best hopes of possibly chasing down the runaway freight train that have been Chelsea before the Blues could make off with the title sometime around late March, lost all semblance of what they had been doing so well and fell off a cliff. From second place and six points behind Chelsea on New Year’s Day, Liverpool had slid to the fifth spot in the table—a full 16 points behind the league leaders—coming into this weekend’s crucial match against Tottenham. What, everyone was asking, had just happened?
While of course there were multiple issues at play in the turn-of-the-year malady that appears to have finally cleared up with Liverpool’s 2-0 smashing of Tottenham on Saturday, the simplest answer was this: They missed the man who now should be widely heralded as their and one of the league’s (and world’s) best players in Sadio Mané.
It had always been evident that Liverpool would find it tougher to play their game while Mané was off at the African Cup of Nations in January. Still, not many foresaw just how much of a challenge they’d find life without their Senegalese star. He was and is the team’s leading scorer, yes, but the Reds have a range of options to deal with the loss of their starting right winger. With Mané gone, Liverpool could throw on the likes of Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi to make up for some of Mané’s missing goals, or reshuffle their lineup a little to play the ever-versatile Adam Lallana on the wing for more creativity in attack while plugging the Englishman’s open place in midfield with good players like Emre Can or Georgino Wijnaldum. Mané would obviously be missed, but it wasn’t like Liverpool were devoid of more than capable backups to hopefully compensate for the absence pretty well.
This didn’t really happen, though, as evidenced by the single win Liverpool mustered in the eight EPL, F.A. Cup, and League Cup matches between Mané’s last pre-Cup of Nations appearance and his first start when back. And what Mané gave Liverpool against Spurs, just his second start after returning from international play with Senegal, drove home why Liverpool weren’t the same dominating team without him as they are when he plays.
The headline to this post is only partly figurative. Mané seriously did spend significant time literally running over Tottenham’s players, most forcefully and repeatedly during the opening half hour when Liverpool absolutely crushed the visitors. Mané scored both of Liverpool’s goals during that opening passage of play, and both goals were due directly to his powerful running, the likes of which few in the world, let alone on Liverpool’s bench, can replicate.
The first goal came thanks to a gorgeous Wijnaldum through ball that cut out the entire Spurs defensive line and sent Mané clean through on goal. But it was Mané’s run that created the pass in the first place.
From a near-standstill on the inside-right channel, Mané spotted a crack in Tottenham’s defense when center back Toby Alderweireld charged forward from his station on the back line to press the back of Roberto Firmino. Alderweireld couldn’t harry the striker enough to prevent him from laying off a pass to Wijnaldum. Instantly understanding what the defender’s movement meant, Mané immediately started sprinting and blazed toward the opening in the defense, knowing that his run would create a wide open lane for Wijanldum to roll a pass that would put Mané one-on-one with the keeper. Wijnaldum deserves credit for hitting such a well-weighted ball with just two touches and while surrounded by onrushing defenders, but it was Mané’s run that made it possible, and his calm and tricky finish to send the ball over the goalkeeper that gave Liverpool the lead.
That opening goal demonstrated the clearest way Mané’s searing speed and intelligent movement help create chances for his team. The second was much the same, but in a slightly different way—one that too proves his indispensability to the current iteration of Liverpool under manager Jürgen Klopp.
Mané again was the architect for the move that brought about the second goal, this time on account of his defensive abilities. Liverpool’s style of intense and high pressing is predicated on stamina, speed, and strength—a combination of which you’ll not find a better embodiment of than Mané himself.
Again finding himself in a central area thanks to his decision to rotate there in order to apply pressure as Tottenham sought to play the ball out from the back, Mané snuck up behind Eric Dier before the Spurs defender could get the ball out of his feet and slipped in to take the ball clean off him in a flash. Mané then accelerated towards goal. Rather than forcing a shot of his own, he spotted Lallana’s late run in support and flipped the ball out to the other side of the box. After Lallana and then Firmino failed to beat keeper Hugo Lloris with the shots that stemmed from Mané’s work, the man who started it all cracked the ball into the roof of the net with another deceptively difficult finish. Not even 20 minutes into one of the biggest games of the season, Mané had all but killed his opponents off by himself.
Those two goals in quick succession were very nearly followed by a third soon after, with only a couple of close-range Lloris saves keeping Mané from his hat trick. Those shots of his in the first third of the match were the best ones he’d get all day, but his running and defending and passing never waned the whole time he was out there.
Mané wasn’t the sole reason why Liverpool demolished Tottenham this weekend and regained some of that seemingly unbeatable form they’ve flashed at times this season; the entire team played a complete and coordinated game the likes of which we hadn’t seen in a long time. Their pressing was unrelenting from minute one to minute 90, as they harassed Tottenham’s ball-carriers en masse, cut off any lanes of escape, then snatched away possession and sprinted out on the break. Their transitions from defense to attack were nearly flawless, with their unselfish running and passing and constant movement tearing through the vaunted Spurs defense at will. And just as promising as the tenacity of their team-wide defending and the speed and power of their counters during that hectic and match-deciding opening half was how they managed to hang on to their lead, to continue defending as a team and keeping the ball safely away from Tottenham when Liverpool did get the ball in their successful efforts to see out the match once things slowed down in the second half.
All of the ways Liverpool performed in Saturday’s match were things they hadn’t done as consistently and/or as completely during the new year doldrums that has most likely already ended their title aspirations. And while it takes 11 players to put together a match like that, it was the specific addition of Mané’s talents—his unstinting commitment to pressing high up that makes the team’s entire defense work; his always correct movement and running in behind that opens up the entire width and depth of the pitch; his nigh-unmatchable speed, which prevents most anyone from catching him when he does find a ball out in front of him to dart after; his cool finishing, which provides the necessary goal threat from somewhere other than the center forward position; etc. etc.—that made it all possible.
Mané has been one of the most under-appreciated stars of the sport for years now. He’s quietly scored at least 10 goals out on the wing every season since he came to England in the summer of 2014 (and, now that he’s finally at a club with a stature more befitting of his own individual quality, he’s already at 11 in 22 matches this year), and has done all of this torching of defenders and banging the ball into the back of the net in the the Best League in the World by the age of 24. Maybe it took going away for a while for everyone to really realize the enormity of his contributions when he is present.