Sadio Mané – Still Liverpool’s Main Man(é)?

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Sadio Mané has been an absolutely integral player to Liverpool since his move to the club two summers ago. Across two seasons, Mané has started 54 games for the club in the Premier League, scoring 23 goals and notching 12 assists, not to mention his double-digit Champions League season for the Reds as they surged to the Champions League final.

But I wanted to take a look at just how important Sadio Mané is to this Liverpool side. In many respects, he was the Reds’ key man in his debut season, seen as one of the biggest factors in Liverpool’s phenomenal attacking performance in 2016-17, an attacking prowess that only improved in 17/18. However, Mané himself was not seen as the main man anymore in 17/18, as Mo Salah and Bobby Firmino came to the fore.

Before we dig into the numbers, I just wanted to take a few words to say how much I love Sadio Mané. He’s categorically one of my favourite Liverpool players, I have him on my home kit and I think he’s dead good. He’s fast, skilful, a great finisher, a classy individual and a serious factor in how good this Liverpool team is. I want to see him sign a new contract, stay as long as Bobby and Mo and see us lift #19. I want to see him given all of the money in the world.

Beginning then, with 16/17, the year that Sadio announced himself in an LFC shirt. As mentioned above, this was seen as a season where he was Liverpool’s most important player – and this is reflected in the numbers.

With Sadio starting, Liverpool won 17 of their 26 games in 16/17, losing just three. That amounts to a win percentage of 65.4% and 2.19 points per game. The Reds would win just five and also lose three of the 12 games that they played without Mané that year, down to 42% win percentage and 1.58 points per game.

The results were mainly due to a huge drop in attacking fluidity without Mané in the side. Defensively Liverpool were very similar with or without Mané, conceding 30 goals in 26 games with him in the team and 12 in 12 without. In terms of xG, Liverpool’s xGA with Mané in the team was 25.93 from 26 games, compared to 11.72 from the 12 without, a ratio of 1.00 xGA per game compared to 0.98.

But the attack suffered a huge dip without Sadio in the side. Liverpool scored 60 goals in the 26 games with him in the team – 2.31 goals per game, but only scored 18 in 12 games without him, a drop off of over 0.8 goals per game. That’s also reflected in the xG – LFC picked up 49.05 xG from their 26 games with Sadio, 1.89 xG per game, compared to 17.6 from the 12 without him, 1.47. Here the gap is smaller but still reflects a significant drop off in attacking quality with Sadio out of the side.

So we can see how integral Mané was in his first season, but was that reflected in the numbers for his second? This was for many seen as a season where he was less important to the side, but personally, before I looked at the numbers I suspected that Sadio would remain Liverpool’s key player, perhaps more crucial than Bobby and Mo – particularly as I felt they struggled without him in October.

I was wrong – the numbers indicate that Mané was not as crucial a factor in Liverpool’s second Premier League campaign with him in the side as he was in his first. I’ll explore the possible reasons for that in a moment, but first a look at the numbers.

With Mané in 17/18 – and Sadio started 28 of the 38 games – Liverpool scored 61 goals at 2.18 goals per game, conceding 29 at 1.04. Without him, they scored 23 in their ten, a small improvement at 2.3 and conceded nine, which at 0.9 is another small improvement over a smaller sample size.

The xG and xGA were also very similar with and without Mané in the side – 56.96 xG at 2.03 with him and 20.57 at 2.06 without him; and 26.42 xGA at 0.94 compared to 10.12 at 1.01 without him. And crucially then, in terms of wins and points. Liverpool won 16 games with Sadio, losing four, and picked up 56 points, exactly two points per game at a 57% win ratio. They won five of their games without him, losing just once – giving them 19 points from ten games, 1.9 points per game with a slightly lower 50% win ratio.

So as we can say, Sadio’s impact on the side was extremely obvious in the numbers in 2016/17 but negligible in 17/18. Whilst the sample sizes without him in the team are hard to draw any clear conclusions from, the numbers are clearly statistically significant in 16/17 and not in 17/18.

One final point to note to underline the difference is that Sadio’s win ratio and points per game ratio in 16/17 were the best in the squad of anyone who played at least ten league games. In 17/18, he dropped to 8th, behind a cluster of players including Bobby Firmino and Andy Robertson.

So, what explains that dip in importance? The first thing to note is that the impact individual players have isn’t necessarily linked to the numbers that the team produces – for example, Joel Matip has been involved in the best win ratio for Liverpool’s last two seasons under Klopp – joint highest of those to have played at least ten games in 17/18 with a win ratio of 63.6% and second behind Sadio in 16/17 with a win ratio of 63.0% – the only LFC to have a win ratio of over 60% in both of the last two seasons. And yet, nobody would argue that Matip has been Liverpool’s most important player over the last two years.

The second thing to note is stylistic differences, tactics and luck. Liverpool badly missed Mané over the Christmas period in 16/17 and changed their game to be deliberately less attacking in their final eight games without him, and were able to grind out a few tight games as a result. In 17/18, Liverpool were a tad lucky in the sense that nine of the ten games Mané missed were before the sale of Phil Coutinho, meaning that they were able to play three of their front four without him. It also meant that resting Sadio before and around Christmas enabled them to use him in almost every game in the back half of the season. The numbers might have looked a little different if Mané had missed nine of LFC’s last eighteen games, but played in all but one of their first twenty.

Another element is the type of games that Mané was scoring and impacting in. Mané was a huge factor in most of Liverpool’s wins over rivals and contributed to their great form against Everton and the top six in 16/17, but only scored in two big six games in 17/18 – the two Liverpool won against Arsenal and City.

The other key factor that has to be taken into account is Mo Salah. Sometimes the simplest explanation is also the truest one and introducing a legitimately world-class winger into your side takes the pressure off the other world-class winger in your side to be the big difference maker. Sadio’s 13 league goals in 16/17 put him level with Phil Coutinho as the team’s top scorer, but his ten in 17/18 left him over 20 behind Mo, and also behind Bobby.

So one question to ask is whether or not Mané as an individual has performed better or worse this season compared to last year. Intuitively, most people might argue that his performance is marginally worse, but if so it would only be marginal. Despite a sticky patch around Christmas, Sadio hit some great form in the second half of the season, and especially in the Champions League he was a critical individual – he was, of course, the man to score the equaliser in Kiev; his tenth of the competition, matching his PL goalscoring.

So in the PL in 17/18, Mané started 28 games, clocking 2230 minutes, scoring ten goals and notching seven assists. That works out as 0.40 goals per 90 and 0.28 assists per 90 – 0.68 GA/90. Compared to 16/17, that’s marginally lower, as his 13 goals and 5 assists in 2257 minutes left him with 0.52 goals per 90, 0.20 assists per 90 and 0.72 GA/90.

Interestingly though, Sadio’s underlying numbers were much higher in 17/18. His xG and xA were both higher this year – 11.52 at 0.46 xG/90 and 5.25 at 0.21 xA/90 compared to 9.48 at 0.38 xG/90 and 4.45 at 0.18 xA/90. So an overall improvement from 0.56 xG+xA/90 to 0.68 xG+xA/90.

The xG numbers are bolstered by his other underlying stats. He’s shooting more – 2.83 shots per 90 compared to 2.27 in 16/17 and he’s making more key passes – 1.98 compared to 1.71. The only area where he’s decreased is his dribbling – something that intuitively passes the eye test. He’s only attempted 3.5 dribbles per 90 compared to 5.0 in 16/17, but with a higher success rate – 2.2 at 63% compared to 2.7 at 54%.

So if Sadio’s impact on Liverpool as a unit appears less influential this year, it’s through no fault of the player himself, whose contribution has scarcely dipped in the Premier League and his underlying performances are better by most metrics. The only potentially frustrating element would be his finishing, as he comfortably outperformed his xG in 16/17 at 1.37 goals per xG, only to dip below the mean in 17/18 – scoring 0.87 goals per xG in 17/18. But that’s luck sometimes, and as I said above, Sadio was the main man at times in the UCL run, scoring against Sevilla, Spartak, Porto, Man City, in both legs against Roma and in the final against Madrid.

Overall then, Sadio Mané remains an absolutely pivotal figure at Liverpool, even if his role at the club has taken on a bit more of a backseat with the emergence of Mo Salah as the club’s main man. With Coutinho still not yet replaced and no backup for the front three yet secured, it is clear that Mané will have to have yet another top season if Liverpool are to compete across multiple fronts. But it’s also clear that he’s more than good enough to do just that.

He’s the man on the back of my home kit for a reason.

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