Why Sadio Mane’s killer instinct makes him a perfect striker

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At the beginning of January, I, alongside many members of the footballing community, began to mentally prepare for Liverpool’s life without Sadio Mane. In ‘Finding the next Sadio Mane – Tactical Analysis‘, I selected Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku as the perfect man to replace the Liverpool legend, amidst a crowd of Luis Diaz, Emmanuel Dennis and Rafael Leao. Weeks later, Liverpool made a signal of intent in signing a Colombian wing wizard with whom they had faced in the Champions League earlier in the season – securing the signature of Luis Diaz. With Diogo Jota and Mohammed Salah firing on all cylinders in front of goal, many thought that the signing of Luis Diaz signaled a methodical plan on behalf of the Reds to ease Sadio Mane out of the team. But as it turns out, the exact opposite has come true, and Mane has only amplified his game since Diaz’s arrival. So what’s changed?

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In quantifying different player roles on a football pitch, I had to scour for a term that would sum up what Sadio Mane offers a team like Liverpool – pure goal-scoring through his direct energy and intensity. Happily, I came across Andy Watson’s Role Scouting System where he outlined the Mane type as a ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’ within his wing player types. Mane floundered under the pressure of last season, scoring just 11 goals from 95 shots. But there’s no denying that the Liverpool man has always been an incredible threat – even breaking the fastest hat-trick record back at Southampton, and finishing as the league’s joint top scorer in that historic 2018-19 campaign.

With his predatory instincts and exceptional finishing, Mane vastly underperformed last season in xG, and is now reaping the full rewards of a change in position in 2021-22, already passing last season’s Premier League total, with 13 in 28 PL matches this time around. As a direct goal-scorer charging down the left, Mane perfectly dovetails with a false nine, using his pace in the half-spaces to advance toward goal and finish off chances. With incredibly intelligent movement and exceptional timing of his runs, Mane can then translate those top quality attributes when deployed as a number nine.

While he may drop deep in the same ways we expect of a Jota or Firmino, Mane is more likely to operate in the wide channels and chase down long passes over the top, or make himself a nuisance against bulldozing defenders in ways Firmino and Jota could never accomplish. This allows the Senegalese striker to essentially play the exact same position as he would adopt on the wing, with a greater emphasis on creating space centrally, and using his exceptional defensive work rate to lead the press. This has been one of the best facets of the positional change – as Mane has always been the hardest working defender in the Liverpool front-line. He now has the opportunity to showcase that in leading pressing phases, where he can close goalkeepers down, bully opposition number sixes, and drop deep in defensive phases as Diaz and Salah remain ready to use their pace on the break.

This tireless work ethic off the ball can then help Mane to create more chances for himself and his team. As a centre-forward, he’s scored 6 goals in 7 matches, compared to 13 in 33 as a left-winger in all competitions. In fact, his ratio of goals per game as a centre-forward far surpasses that of both Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota.

It’s the perfect role for Mane, given his predatory instincts, his ability to adequately assess for space and, importantly, his ability to appropriately seek that space at the correct time. But it’s also a role that continues to bring out the best in Mane’s ability to run the wide channels and seek space in behind a back-line, rather than Liverpool persisting with their striker as a false nine. Instead, a central midfielder like Thiago or Naby Keita can carry the ball forward and get involved further up the pitch, with Mane still showing occasional moments of drifting toward the ball – particularly in the common false nine automatism seen when Fabinho has the ball. But he can then use his pace in behind to become what we call a ‘Channel Runner’, opening space for those same players to seek space in advanced positions.

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Quite amazingly, Jurgen Klopp has managed to give each and every single one of his forwards a role in the team, despite the depth of quality. Sadio Mane can still play off the left as Diogo Jota operates through the middle, but if Klopp wants to get the best out of the wide areas and use Diaz’s dribbling to take players on 1v1, Mane takes the mantle through the middle. The role brings out the best in his uncanny ability to bang in the goals, by making him the man to finish off moves, and push opposition defenders back. Whether or not this takes the emphasis away from Salah’s scoring ability remains to be seen, but at the very least, the Mane role should help to bring out the best in Salah’s exceptional weight of pass and chance creating abilities. For now, Liverpool have an incredible balance in their team, and continue to steamroll opposition teams as they bulldoze their way to the finish line of this season – in with a genuine shout of a quadruple.

So there it is! Why Sadio Mane’s killer instinct makes him a perfect striker. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!


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