There is a school of thought that suggests that Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne is a shoo-in for the P.F.A player of the year award.
And there’s definitely merit to that argument with the Belgian linchpin laying on a record-equalling 20 Premier League assists, tying with Thierry Henry as statistically the best wing-man in a singular league campaign, as well as scoring 13 goals.
However, when you weigh up all the candidates’ arguments for the award, Sadio Mane emerges as the worthiest winner of the gong.
The Senegalese had another brilliant campaign for the Reds, contributing 18 Premier League goals and seven assists. It wasn’t just the number of goals and assists that Mane contributed, it was the importance of those moments.
In total, the 28-year-old directly won Liverpool 15 points by scoring the winner in five games; the former Southampton flier put Aston Villa, Wolves, West Ham, Norwich and Bournemouth to the sword. The Liverpool number 10 also put the icing on the cake in close-run games against Newcastle, 3-1 at Anfield, and Villa again, scoring the final goal in a 2-0 win.
Garbage time is an American sports reference is a term used to refer to the period toward the end of a timed sports competition that has become a blowout when the outcome of the game — or in this case, league — has already been decided, and the pressure of the fixtures and the focus from the teams will suitably diminish.
Since Liverpool sewed up their title, Manchester City — with de Bruyne central — have been in rude form, running up cricket scores against several teams, including a visibly hungover Reds(4-0).
In this time, Pep Guardiola’s runners up — notwithstanding their 1-0 defeat at Southampton — have scored 26 goals in seven games, filleting the likes of Newcastle, already safe and to borrow a cliche “on the beach”, Liverpool, whose blood alcohol levels would discombobulate any breathalyzer, Brighton, whose Premier League status was assured and had nothing tangible to play for.
Similar routes came against already relegated Norwich and Watford — the outlier because they had something to strive for, retaining their Premier League status — and they squeaked to a 2-1 win over a battling Bournemouth, a team whom the game was for than a dead rubber to.
In these glut of games, De Bruyne scored three goals and assisted team-mates four times swelling his numbers in games of little consequence.
Mane, in contrast, came up trumps in big games — against both good opposition and in key junctures of the season — scoring against Leicester in October, at home to Manchester City in November, the winner against Wolves in January and the decisive goal against Wolves in the same month. The Senegal international, although it was a meaningless game, also scored at the Emirates at Arsenal towards the tail end of the season.
After Liverpool toppled Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup in August, the 69 times capped Senegal international averted a potential banana skin by scoring and assisting at his old club, Southampton, to continue Jurgen Klopp’s men’s early-season head of steam
There was a similar feel to Mane’s other league assists as he manufactured goals for team-mates away to Leicester, at home to Bournemouth with the title still on the line — a game in which he also scored — and two in the home Merseyside derby. In total, the forward scored and assisted in four of the same league games.
The former RB Salzburg attackers biggest contribution, however — as cited by Jurgen Klopp as the most important win in the eventually victorious season — was his display in the Reds’ 2-1 win away to Aston Villa. Mane expertly set up Andrew Robertson’s goal with a beautifully dinked left-footed pass and then — as the game approached injury time — headed in Trent Alexander Arnold’s corner.
On that cold November day, Mane was the incarnation of the team; brave and always striving with a never say die attitude.
De Bruyne accounted for five goals and four assists against top-six opposition, but these — following a pattern — tended to come in bunches; two assists away to Spurs in the Londoners bad run of early-season form, two goals and an assist at home to Arsenal, whom he also scored a penalty against at the Etihad.
Further goals came home and away against the porous Chelsea and the Belgian registered a goal and an assist against Liverpool at the Etihad, with the title already sealed by the Reds.
The former Wolfsburg playmaker has a wonderful season and that is without debate. But, when you dice it up, Mane — the hard-working, clutch moment supplying inspiration — deserves the Player of the Year award for playing a bigger role than anyone in ending Liverpool’s 30-year title drought.