28 June 2016

On Sadio Mané

This could be a very short article. It won't be, because I can't help myself, but this seems quite simple.

Liverpool need a wide player who can add goals. Liverpool need a more direct attacker, a fast attacker who can stretch defenses and run in behind defenders. Liverpool need that attacker to be flexible: to be comfortable on either flank or centrally. Liverpool need that player to fit into Liverpool's current system: specifically, the ability to press from the front, to work non-stop both with and without the ball.

Sadio Mané is every single one of those things. Pay no attention to the fee. Pay no attention to the club he's coming from. They're incidental.

Mané is 24, two months older than Coutinho, six months younger than Firmino. He scored 15 goals last season, more than any Liverpool player, with 11 in the Premier League last season, also more than any Liverpool player. And I suspect you remember that four of those goals came against Liverpool.

Only eight players have scored 10-or-more league goals in the last two Premier League seasons: Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa, Olivier Giroud, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Graziano Pelle, Alexis Sanchez, and Sadio Mané.

Liverpool need goals.

There's a bit of almost everything in his goals last season. He runs behind defenders, he twists away from defenders, he poaches. He gets on the end of throughballs and crosses and second balls. He gets into the penalty box, from all angles. Seven right-footed, six left-footed, two headers. All except his first goal of the season, in a Europa League qualifier against Vitesse Arnhem (which, for some reason, isn't in the above video) came from inside the box.

Statistically, everything's good (if not great) except Mané's passing and possession loss, and more than comparable to Liverpool's current first-choice attackers. But one thing stands out.

Partly by design, partly because of the way defenses lined up against Liverpool, and partly because of the players involved, Liverpool took too many shots from outside the box last season. 290 of Liverpool's 629 shots in the league came from outside the box (46.1%), but only 13 of Liverpool's 63 goals. Unsurprisingly, Coutinho was the worst offender.

That's not where Mané shoots from. 76.7% of his 86 Premier League shots – and all 11 of his goals – came from inside the box, a vastly higher proportion that any of Liverpool's attacking midfielders. That's exactly the type of player that Liverpool needed to add this summer.

Admittedly, Mané's chance creation is concerning. He's not far behind Coutinho, Lallana, or Firmino's assists per 90 minutes, but his key passes and throughballs are vastly lower, as is his successful passes per 90. However, Mané's not necessarily there to create. He wasn't for Southampton, and he probably won't be for Liverpool. He's the one who gets on the end of throughballs from Coutinho, Firmino, and Lallana.

The possession loss is less concerning, a combined metric of unsuccessful touches and being dispossessed by the opposition. That's the price of being a tricky dribbler who wants to run with the ball, and it's still not much worse than Coutinho or Lallana, and barely better than Firmino.

It was too easy for defenses to sit deep against Liverpool last season. Drop into the defensive third, get in front of Coutinho, Lallana, and Firmino, and just stifle the hell out of the match. All three of those attackers are very good players who I like having at Liverpool, but it was too easy to frustrate them, with the end result too many shots from distance and too few goals scored. That's why Origi was so valuable upon returning from injury, that's why Sheyi Ojo got games at the end of the campaign. Mané simply makes it much, much harder for defenses to play that way.

Right now, it seems most likely that Mané replaces Lallana in the starting XI. Which is amusing, as Mané was signed to replace Lallana at Southampton. It's the circle of life. But make no mistake, Lallana will start games. There will be injuries, and even without Europe, there will be cup matches. Lallana proved himself a vital part of Klopp's system over the second half of the season with his pressing and combination play and work rate. Liverpool still need that. Lallana's biggest failing was his lack of goals. This signing's meant to remedy that.

Plus, it's not as if Mané always has to play on the right. He played centrally and on the right for Southampton last season, and mainly on the right in 2014-15, but often features on the left for Senegal, which is also where he usually played when at Red Bull Salzburg. He's right-footed, but scores with both feet. He can play anywhere along Liverpool's line of three attackers, on either flank if Liverpool play 4-3-3, in the hole or as a striker if Liverpool play 4-Diamond-2, or as a false nine as Firmino did last season.

Goals, pace, pressing, versatility. That's why I don't care about the fee, and that's why I don't care what club Liverpool bought him from.

But yes, the Southampton jokes are inevitable. Five players. Somewhere around £95-100m in transfer fees over the last three years. Yes, it's weird. Yes, it's very easy to mock. Just take the players and the deals individually. Clyne was excellent last season. Lallana probably cost too much, but has become a valuable player under Klopp. Lovren's slowly become a competent defender and will almost certainly be first-choice next season. Lambert was a bad signing, but for what, £4.5m? Whatever. For the most part, these have been okay to decent to actually good signings.

And there's the fee, and the "Premier League-proven" gripe. They're overpriced. They don't always settle quicker than players from foreign leagues. Buying from mid-table sides makes you a mid-table club. Again, there's a bit of truth to it. But there's also the fact that prices have skyrocketed, both domestically and internationally, thanks to the new TV deal, and that Liverpool don't have the allure of Champions League football next season.

Maybe Sadio Mané's not one of the "big names" that fans want to see signed. He's not coming from a foreign league. He's not Mario Götze. Which is too bad, but Mario Götze didn't want to come to Liverpool. So be it.

The alpha and the omega of this transfer is that Sadio Mané brings qualities to the Liverpool squad that Liverpool desperately lacked last season. Sadio Mané meshes with Liverpool's current style and system.

Sadio Mané fits.