Sadio Mané has been a surprise blessing for many Liverpool fans. Despite his inconsistencies from past seasons still being seen in shades thus far, the Senegalese wide-player has been a great addition to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. Needless to say, he’s gone beyond proving himself to the Anfield faithful, many of whom had doubts of varying degrees with consideration to his price tag and especially given that he’s yet another Southampton recruit.
In the next couple of weeks, Mane heads off to join his national team to compete in the African Cup of Nations, and this puts Liverpool at a crossroad. As at the end of December 2016, Liverpool sit in second place in the Premier League, 6 points behind Chelsea. Can the Reds cope without Mane in January?
The Loss Defined
Undoubtedly, Sadio Mané has brought an element of football that has been lacking at Liverpool for a while now – raw pace and power.
Think of Fernando Torres who is able to meet Steven Gerrard’s through balls thanks to his great positional awareness and pace. Think of Luis Suárez and how his mind operates at a million miles an hour while moving at a slightly lesser pace on and off the ball. That’s what Sadio Mané has brought to the table this season, given the offloading of Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe, and Lazar Marković (on loan).
On the left side of the pitch, Philippe Coutinho typically cuts infield to create space and look for vertical passes into the box for off-ball runners to meet, whereby the left-back or the left-sided midfielder will occupy the vacated space on the left-wing. On the right, however, we have often seen a good balance of wide play and cuts infield by Sadio Mané.
The Senegalese often occupies the half-space while Nathaniel Clyne stays slightly deeper but nearer to the by-line, and the two mix and match between playing 1-2 passes with either of them making the overlap, or to fake the 1-2 pass and either of them making the run infield looking to take a shot or laying it off to another player.
Mane’s pace enables him to be one of the outlets for counters, allowing him to pounce on unsuspecting back-lines who don’t expect a long-ball being played immediately after the ball has been won back by Liverpool. This, among other traits, will be missed. This role that Mane plays will be left void.
Coping with the Temporary Loss
This is where it gets tricky for Liverpool. With a key figure going off for national team duty, who steps up to fill his role and take his position, at least for the time being? Are they able to do it? Will Liverpool’s style of play change? Many questions are still left unanswered.
Shifting of Players
The first obvious choice would be to rotate players around to fill the gaps. With Emre Can and Daniel Sturridge back into the fray, Liverpool appear to be in good shape to cope with Mane’s absence. At first glance, Adam Lallana could be moved out wide to occupy the right-sided role like he did for Southampton in the past when Jay Rodriguez played as a left-forward for them. However, we have seen Lallana excel in more central positions and moving him wide would mean that there is a risk of reduced levels of performances.
The next option would be to move Georginio Wijnaldum, considering that he has a wide skill-set that offers flexibility. He’s able to make quick exchanges of passes and has shown glimpses of getting into dangerous positions in and around the box as well. Moving him into a slightly more advanced role could see an increased frequency of Gini getting the ball in the box.
However, take a short breather and review the two aforementioned players; both Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum are tactically flexible enough to assume the role of the right-side of attack, but they do lack the physical traits that Sadio Mané brings to the table. Neither are particularly fast, nor do they command the perceived-solidity that Mane has whilst carrying the ball.
In light of this, two centre-forwards can be considered: Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi. The former experimented in a deeper role against Burnley and whether it is faults of his own or not, the experiment was less than successful. On the other hand, the latter appears to strive in a slightly more central role where his ability to hold the ball up the pitch comes into play.
Consider the facts, however: both strikers are comfortable playing out wide as they still pose threats to opposing defenders, with speed and pace (albeit, at different levels), and both are capable of scoring goals even from wider areas. This would also allow for Roberto Firmino to resume as a false-9 where some of his best performances have come from. However, yet again, it is yet to be seen if either of the two can consistently perform in the wide-right role; to see if moving them wide is more a matter of convenience than it is for effectiveness.
While many would think that the buck stops there, there has been a popular fifth name that has been mentioned – a player that many have forgotten. On the AnfieldIndex Committee Podcast special, along with the AI Academy Podcast, three names from the Liverpool academy were mentioned as potential fill-ins for Sadio Mané, however the standout player would be Sheyi Ojo.
Ojo played a bit part towards the end of the 2015/16 season when Jürgen Klopp deployed him in the starting XI for a couple of games. He showed some promise and racked up a few assists in the process. Understandably, Ojo has become a popular name to be potential cover for Mane given his ability to carry the ball with pace and power.
While this appears to be the most logical solution for Mane’s temporary absence, it would be risky for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool to bank on a youngster to perform considerably well, even if it’s just for a couple of weeks. With no real “Plan B” in the event that Sheyi Ojo struggles, it could be a do-or-die scenario for Liverpool.
As such, it is possible that Jürgen Klopp’s “coaching over buying” methods could be deviated from.
With January and the transfer window coinciding with the African Cup of Nations, there is a strong chance that Jürgen Klopp would want to bolster his options up top, perhaps further pushed by Sadio Mané’s absence. After strong links with multiple players, even before the end of 2016, new additions are a distinct possibility.
As mentioned before, only Sheyi Ojo fits the mold of Sadio Mané, while Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi partially do so. With the risk of relying on a youngster and/or shifting players away from their best positions/roles, there is a strong case to be made for recruiting in January even if it’s just as a temporary replacement to Sadio Mané.
Quincy Promes is a popular name being brought up given some speculation from the press. Stylistically speaking, Promes is the closest player resembling Sadio Mané, possessing the pace and power as well as the end product that Mane has shown at Liverpool. Question marks over translating the performances from the Russian League over to the English Premier League loom, however.
With Julian Draxler out of the picture, a fellow Julian – Julian Brandt – remains as one of the leading players from the Bundesliga that Liverpool fans want. With the skill set necessary to play out wide in both a winger’s role as well as a creative wide player’s role, Brandt can be seen as a great investment.
Closer to home, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal has also sprung up as a potential target for Liverpool. With limited opportunities in London, there has been a lot of talk about a move to Merseyside for the Englishman, whereby his abilities both on and off the ball could be further accentuated under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp.
Despite the many players out there that could be acquired to cover for Sadio Mané during his absence, there have been doubts over the need for new signings to begin with. For one, Liverpool are going to be without Mane for only a couple of weeks, which may not be too significant in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, there will be a bedding-in period for most players who are newly-acquired, let alone into a Jürgen Klopp team which demands a lot out of players both on match days and in training sessions.
On the flipside, injuries have rendered Liverpool somewhat thin in terms of squad depth. Results aside, performances have been questionable in some cases – even if it’s for periods within a game itself. Additionally, the Reds’ substitutes’ bench has been filled up by youngsters, with the likes of Ejaria and Woodburn being included.
There is a case to be made that even if new signings are made at least partially due to Mane’s absence, there is a need for more first-team-ready players in the squad regardless.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, whether Liverpool requires another attacking player to cover for Sadio Mané or not is down to perception. If one thinks that the side has enough flexibility and firepower to carry on, then no further signings are required. If one thinks that shifting players around would result in a mismatch of abilities and the needs of particular roles, or even if it’s just a case of paranoia and worst-case scenarios, then new signings up top would be deemed as more than just a luxury.
With this crossroads ahead, it’s needless to say that Jürgen Klopp’s next step will be an interesting one. Will he try to replicate January of 2013 when Liverpool signed two gems in Coutinho and Sturridge, two players who are still considered two of the best players at the club today?
Or, does the January of 2016 repeat itself: when the man himself signed a make-shift striker who happened to be a defender by trade?