The most respected shirt number in all football is undoubtedly the number 10. Legends from Messi and Maradona to Pele and Zidane all donned the infamous jersey at the heights of their careers. This summer, Liverpool rewarded Sadio Mané with the iconic garment, and he has responded in turn by scoring a league-leading four goals to begin the season, tied with Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović, enough to win him the August PFA Player of the Month award. But what has caused this excellent start?
The Attacking Style of Sadio Mané
Mané is a very technical winger. His dribbling skills and movements complement the fluidity of Liverpool’s attack. He is unselfish in setting up teammates Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, primarily on counter attacks, but isn’t afraid to cut back or keep the ball in scoring attempts.A very typical Sadio Mané heat map, this one specifically vs. Crystal Palace. The L shape in zones 13 and 14 shows decisions made; either to release down into the box to cross or to cut inside. (via SofaScore)
Outside of goals scored, Sadio Mané’s numbers haven’t been drastically different than seasons past. He has an excellent goal conversion rate at 44% early in the season (for comparison, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a 42% conversion rate in a sample size three times as many matches last season in the Premier League). While Mané finished 2017-18 with a mediocre 18% conversion rate, there are separate reasons for that which will be touched on later. His 2016-17 season saw a 38% conversion rate. Mané’s average shots per game for previous seasons were 2.1 in 16-17, 2.4 in 17-18, and 2.5 in 18-19. Mané has also had his second-most passes per game in a season in his career (34.3 AvgP). Again, these are small sample sizes as the season is only four matches in.
To summarize: Mané is performing similarly to past years in shots and passing. So, what could be the difference? The answer is one of the most vital benefits in football tactics: space.
Giving Mané Space
Part of the reason Mané’s production dipped a bit last season was the incoming transfer of Mohamed Salah. The new signing was deployed on the right side, prompting Mané to switch to the left. With this switch, Mané had to adapt to new (or opposite) movements with the ball at his feet. Actions such as cutting back or dribbling down the left half space into the box are performed differently on the left side of the pitch as opposed to the right. Time was needed for the Senegalese winger to adjust to these movements.(fig. 1) Mané’s first half of the 17-18 season (fig. 2) Mané’s second half of the 17-18 season. While he played less due to suspension and injury, the second half production is still improved, due to adjusting to his new role and the attention of Salah. (via transfermarkt)
Mané and the Attackers
The remarkable level of Salah’s performances at the start of last season forced teams to shift their focus from defending Mané as if he was the primary attacking outlet to defending Salah. This has given Mané the time and space needed to build his creativity on the left side.Mané has benefited from opponents’ awareness of the players around him. Here, there are players shadowing Salah and marking Naby Keïta, but no one marking Mané, who receives the ball in a dangerous area. This resulted in a goal by Mané shortly after.
Any time a player is emphasized as having a key role, the teammates of that player can fall under the radar. Vicente del Bosque, in a piece on The Coaches’ Voice discussing his success managing Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final, stated that among a roster consisting of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and David Villa, it was the substitute winger Jesús Navas that was the secret weapon. With the other teammates taking up space, this allowed Navas to exploit the open areas against Giovanni van Bronckhorst on the right side. The result was one of the most famous goals in recent football history, a goal which began via dribbling by Navas down the right touchline. The concentration of the ball on the right side, where Salah is positioned, has opened up expanses of space on the left for Sadio Mané.(fig. 1) With play focused on the right side of the pitch, the left side is open to release Mané on counter-attacks often in 1v1 situations. (fig. 2) Roberto Firmino has the vision to pass a through ball ahead and Mané has the sheer speed to outrun defenders to the ball.
Mané and the Full Backs
It has not only been Salah that has given Mané space to operate. Having two consistent, forward-playing full backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson has additionally been effective in opening up areas of the pitch.With the ball from a counter-attack, Mané has multiple choices with the ball; he can dribble down into the box to attempt a cross, cut back to the top of the box, or allow Robertson to overlap and pass it to him, thus forcing a 2v1.
Robertson has been the primary wide outlet for Mané, as he shares the same side of the pitch as the left back. Robertson’s accurate passing and crossing during his time with Liverpool has forced managers to pull their defenders towards him, giving Mané space on the inside areas to exploit.After beating two defenders, Robertson’s run towards the box paired with Mané’s run freezes one centre back. Robertson then passes the ball into the space Mané is occupying, giving Mané a 1v1 situation with the other centre back. Here, he beats the centre back and scores his fourth goal of the season.
Mané and the Midfielders
Last season the midfield was considered a weak spot in Liverpool’s build-up play. This changed when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club in January, and again with Naby Keïta joining in the summer. These midfielders playing as 8s contribute immensely when bringing the ball forward and connecting the defence to the attack, thus forcing defenders to press them. In turn, this frees up yet again more space for Mané to work with.Keïta’s best trait is his ability on the ball through the midfield. RB Leipzig play in a similar gegenpressing, counter-attacking style as Liverpool, and Keïta was often the man that started said attacks. His dribbling and vision have already found Mané on multiple counter-attacks this season.
When in possession in the opponent’s half, spaces can still be stretched and opened up, even when attacking a low block. Finding spaces in between the lines, cycling the ball around the block, and passing through balls breaking the lines are all effective methods of achieving this.(fig.1) Against a Crystal Palace low block, Mané comes down to meet Keïta’s pass, and recycles the ball through to the opposite side of the pitch. (fig. 2) The circulation of the ball ends at Salah’s feet, who, with multiple defenders covering him yet again, manages to pass it to an open Mané at the top of the box, resulting in a shot on goal.
Sadio Mané has had a brilliant start to the Premier League season. Yet while some clubs have players that are more heavily relied on than others, Liverpool players are all relied on equally in Jurgen Klopp’s system. Mané has been essential in this start the same way Salah or Robertson have been essential. Without the space opened up by teammates, the exploitation of that space doesn’t occur. One of the deadliest front threes in all football are such partly due to their unpredictability. One month it will be Mané scoring most of the goals, then Salah the next month, and Firmino the next. The chemistry between the trio, and that of the entire squad will be vital during a very difficult upcoming schedule for Liverpool, and Sadio Mané will be expected to continue his strong form with the help of his teammates.