SADIO MANÉ: LIVERPOOL’S NEW NUMBER 9?
Liverpool superstar Sadio Mané is undergoing something of a mini renaissance of late. He has hit form at just the perfect moment as Liverpool chase immortality. This purple patch has coincided with a switch to the striking role.
The number nine in Jürgen Klopp’s tactical setup is not your archetypical striker. Ever since the German implemented his 4-3-3 system at the start of the 2016/17 season, the onus has been on the striker to drop deep and link play together to get the two wide forwards into dangerous positions.
That’s without mentioning the sheer work rate required to press from the front and also drop deep into the half spaces in midfield to get involved in attacking buildups. For almost five years, Roberto Firmino played this role to perfection.
He worked his socks off and provided quality in abundance as he carved a niche for himself after a slow start to his Liverpool career under Brendan Rodgers. For most of those five years, Bobby (as he is affectionately known) started anytime he was fit.
He was preferred to natural strikers like Christian Benteke, Daniel Sturrridge, Danny Ings, Divock Origi etc. He was the glue that kept everything together. He formed a key cog in the famed front three alongside Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané ever since they first played together in 2017/18.
It wasn’t really until last season that Firmino’s place in the side came under threat. The capture of Diogo Jota from Wolves and the Portuguese international’s swift adaptation meant Bobby’s place in the side was no longer assured.
Jota didn’t possess Bobby’s ability on the ball or technique but he guaranteed an abundance of goals, and goals as they say, pay the rent. It wasn’t to the detriment of Mané and Salah either, as he complemented them well and eased the goalscoring burden on their shoulders.
Bobby’s goal return has steadily shrunk since his career best return of 27 in 2017/18. He provided more than just goals though, which is why he still kept his place in the team. Jota over the past two seasons has usurped the Brazilian. His pace, ability to play out wide and unrelenting goal return has seen him become a feature of the side.
Bobby’s linkup play or Diogo’s goal threat? It’s been a question the manager has had to wrestle with endlessly these past two seasons. As it turns out, Sadio could just offer him a solution. He could just be the best of both worlds.
It is a potential solution that was stumbled upon really. The trip to the San Siro in February saw Jota and Firmino pick up knocks. At the time, Mané was struggling. He had scored just 1 goal in his last 12 appearances for the club and was putting in performances similar to ones we saw last season.
Luis Diaz meanwhile had hit the ground running, and with him predominantly being a left winger, it was Sadio who was moved to the striking role. The trio of Diaz, Sadio and Salah lined up together for the very first time at home to Norwich City on the 19th of February.
They dovetailed brilliantly with all three getting on the scoresheet in a comeback victory. They started the next game together as Leeds travelled to Anfield for what was Liverpool’s game in hand. Mané netted a brace in a 6-0 victory as he worked out the kinks of the new role.
That front three would go on to start in the League Cup final victory over Chelsea. They were the preferred trio when West Ham visited Anfield too, with Sadio scoring the only goal of the game. You could see his understanding of the role growing with each outing.
The international break would soon follow and he would seal Senegal’s ticket to the 2022 World Cup by tucking away the winning penalty in another shootout against Egypt, just a few weeks after the AFCON final.
The confidence he took from international glory certainly helped. Upon return, he was back in the striking role away to Benfica and once again found the scoresheet in an excellent display. He was dropping deep to good effect and creating chances for his teammates.
His best performances in the striking role have come in his last two appearances. First he put City to the sword at Wembley with a devastating performance that saw him press from the front and drop deep to play between the lines. He was simply sensational on Tuesday night against United.
He created the first and second goals with some intelligent passing. His movement in the box for his goal also showcased the predatory instincts he has developed over the years. It is now 8 goals and an assist in his 8 appearances this season as the false nine.
He seems to have reinvented himself yet again. He was terrific in his first season as a right winger and then switched to the left upon Salah’s arrival. He’s helped the club to Champions League and Premier League titles as a left winger and is now reborn as a false nine in this chase for immortality.
He has played this role before in the past, notably netting a brace against Watford (including a filthy backheel chip over Foster). There was never any feel of permanence about those occasions though. Diaz and Jota are both more than capable of playing off the left now.
That means we could see Sadio permanently morph into our number nine going forward. Bobby remains a fan favourite and will have a part to play but as it stands, Sadio holds the shirt and doesn’t look like he’ll be letting go anytime soon.
Jürgen Klopp has form for positional changes as we saw with Bobby, Lallana, Wijnaldum and very recently Harvey Elliott. Mané seems to be enjoying a new lease of life and long may it continue. This positional switch could offer him a long term future at the club.
With no real talks ongoing over a new contract despite having just over a year left on his current deal, this rich vein of form has come at just the right time for him. Playing through the middle could extend his career at the very top level with concerns over his waning explosiveness when out wide rendered moot.
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