Premier League: Sadio Mane Is Indispensable for Liverpool
In their first full season under manager Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have become one of Europe's most entertaining sides.
Klopp's signature pressing style, a slew of talented midfielders and a mediocre back line have combined to make the Reds such an entertaining watch. If you like goals -- who doesn't -- and box-to-box action, flip on a Liverpool match. The pace is breathtaking, the goals are usually aplenty and the result is unpredictable.
But there's been a change in form on Merseyside in recent weeks. After looking like legit title contenders through Christmas, Liverpool have fallen off Chelsea's pace thanks to a poor run of form which saw them win just once in a span of eight matches across all competitions (including the FA Cup and EFL Cup). The one triumph in that stretch was a 1-0 win over Plymouth -- who plies their trade in the fourth tier of English soccer -- in an FA Cup replay.
In all, Liverpool lost six times over those eight matches. This comes on the heels of a season-opening run which saw the Reds lose just twice over their first 21 Premier League fixtures.
What was the difference? Well, it may be better to ask who was the difference, and the answer is Sadio Mane.
Liverpool bought Mane for £34 million this past offseason, snatching him away from Premier League opposition Southampton. He's quickly become the Reds' star man.
Liverpool's aforementioned cold spell came at precisely the time when Mane had to leave the club for international duties, playing with his Senegal countrymen in the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Reds' per-game splits with and without Mane this year are pretty mind-boggling.
For transparency, the seven matches without Mane are four Premier League fixtures -- Manchester United, Swansea City, Chelsea and Hull City -- plus an FA Cup match against Wolverhampton and both legs of a EFL Cup tie against Southampton. The clash with Chelsea is counted as a match without Mane even though he came on as a substitute in the 75th minute. Neither FA Cup match against Plymouth is included since Liverpool didn't roll out their usual starting lineup, and for the matches with Mane, we're only looking at Premier League fixtures.
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Sure, a seven-game sample isn't huge, but this is some pretty incredible stuff.
Other than shots per game, which only suffer a minor drop, Liverpool haven't been close to the same when Mane isn't on the pitch, averaging nearly 3 less shots on goal and 1.67 fewer goals per match. Most staggering of all is that the Reds haven't won without Mane in the starting XI during this recent run.
And it's not like Liverpool faced a gauntlet of top-end foes sans Mane. They lost home matches to Wolverhampton and Swansea while falling 2-0 at Hull. Wolverhampton is in 18th place in England's second tier while both Swansea and Hull are battling relegation in the Premier League.
Luckily for Liverpool, Senegal was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations, so Mane is back with the Reds. He played roughly 15 minutes against Chelsea in his first game back, and he made his full-time return last weekend against Spurs.
Mane made an immediate impact.
Facing a Tottenham defense which had allowed a mere 16 goals through their first 24 league matches, Mane netted a brace, scoring the opener in the 16th minute and quickly making it 2-0 with another goal in the 18th minute.
After winning just once their previous eight matches without him (again, the win was over fourth-flight Plymouth), Liverpool soundly beat a fellow top-four contender in Mane's first game back.
He's really good, and the Reds have to have him to have any chance at a top-four finish.
With second through sixth place separated by just four points, the battle for the top four -- and a resulting spot in next season's Champions League -- will be a tight one. As long as Mane is in the side, Liverpool look to be as good of a bet as anyone -- outside of Premier League frontrunners Chelsea -- to land one of the coveted Champions League spots.