It is a sign of a very good player when even the euphoria of signing one of world football’s most exciting attacking talents cannot entirely compensate for his departure.
This is the place where Liverpool find themselves – delighted at the record arrival of Darwin Nunez, but saddened at end of Sadio Mane’s stellar six years at Anfield.
Mane’s move to Bayern Munich leaves one of the Premier League’s greatest forward lines in history shorn of a key component – one who has scored 120 goals in 269 games to help Liverpool win every major trophy available.
BBC Sport looks at the impact the Senegal striker had at Liverpool and what their remodelled forward line needs to thrive without him.
- Sadio Mane: Liverpool striker to join Bayern Munich in £35m deal
‘He has been unbelievable’
As the season wore on with plenty of talk but no confirmation of a contract extension for Mane, Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino beyond 2023, the likelihood grew of one or more of them departing.
Before the Champions League final with Real Madrid, Salah pledged he would be at the club next season, but Mane was more coy on his future and has now forced Liverpool’s hand.
His departure acts as something of a bookend to the first phase of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure as manager, during which the club have risen to the top of the global game.
Mane was the German’s first major signing at Liverpool, taking what has become a well-worn path from Southampton to Merseyside for £34m in 2016.
His 13 goals in his first season helped Liverpool return to the Champions League after a couple of seasons out of it, paving the way for the remarkable run of success that followed.
Within two years they were champions of Europe and 12 months later won the Premier League for the first time in 30 years.
They have also been Champions League runners-up twice and finished second in the Premier League twice, including the 2021-22 season in which they won the FA and League Cup.
The summer after Mane’s arrival, Salah signed and, along with Firmino, formed one of the finest forward lines in English football history. It produced 338 goals in five seasons in all competitions.
In that time, Mane has shown a positional versatility few possess, playing on the right in his first season, then switching to a predominantly left-sided role to accommodate Salah and, more recently, excelling centrally.
With this trio moving into or near to their 30s, the evolution of Liverpool’s attacking stable was already well under way before Mane’s departure, with the signing and integration of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz and the recent acquisition of exciting young talent Fabio Carvalho from Fulham.
The signing of Nunez before the summer transfer window opened was another proactive move from Liverpool.
Mane, though, has shown no signs of fading. Far from it. His form in the second half of 2021-22 was exceptional, contributing as much as anyone to the club fighting on four fronts until the very end.
He scored home and away against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-finals. It was his goal that earned Liverpool a Premier League point at Manchester City in April and his superb header that kept their title bid alive at Aston Villa the following month.
In total he netted 13 times in 27 games – operating largely as a number nine – after helping Senegal win the Africa Cup of Nations in February. He scored the winning penalty in the shootout against Egypt in the final.
“For the past four or five years he’s been unbelievable,” former Manchester City midfielder and Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure told BBC World Service.
“Without any disrespect to Mohamed Salah, who was done brilliantly as well, Raheem Sterling, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, how can you tell me this lad is not in the top three of the Ballon d’Or? How is it possible?
“In term of winning trophies, he is up there. Liverpool at the moment are everywhere – Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup.”
With Mane now joining Divock Origi out of the Anfield exit and Takumi Minamino available for a move, all eyes will be on who comes in to bolster Liverpool’s attacking resources.
Darwin’s theory of evolution
An instinctive eye for goal is a given in a potential Mane successor, with the forward averaging 20 goals a season in all competitions at Liverpool, many of them well-taken, predatory first-time finishes with feet or head.
Last season his 16 league goals fell just short of his expected goals (xG) tally of 18.34, according to Opta, with his shot conversion rate of 16.33% lower than some of his peers but on a par with team-mates Jota (16.67) and Salah (16.55).
Mane has great awareness and timing to both find space and capitalise upon it. Allied to this is his dribbling and passing ability, making him as difficult a foe outside the box as in it.
Strength, speed and acceleration are huge assets of his, not only in helping his attacking output, but for what he brings to a team who like to press fiercely from the front.
According to football statistics site FBref.com, Liverpool’s proactive approach to the market has already paid off, with Diaz and Jota the two closest matches to Mane in style and output in the winger and forward categories respectively.
Jota provided very similar attacking numbers (21 goals and eight assists), provided an even more efficient pressing game and demonstrated a versatility to operate across the forward line.
In just a few months, Diaz has shown he can provide goals, assists and more from the left side of attack, with his directness and slightly superior dribbling helping him create 1.54 chances per game to Mane’s 1.21 last season.
Rather than a direct Mane replacement then, Nunez ticks a slightly different box – as a predominantly central striker with an ability to roam to good effect and with an elite eye for goal.
- Why Liverpool made Nunez their potential record signing
Last season the 22-year-old scored 34 goals in 41 games for Benfica, including two against Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals. But for some better-timed runs and Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, he could have had three or four at Anfield alone.
Quick, skilful, an extremely proficient ball carrier – it is clear to see why Klopp is so enthused by Nunez’s signing, telling the Liverpool website: “He has all the pieces we look for. He can set a tempo, brings energy, can threaten space from central and wide areas and he is aggressive and dynamic with his movement.”
Above all, though, Nunez can finish. In the past year his goals per shot (0.31 per 90 minutes) and non-penalty xG (+0.41 per 90) puts him in the 99th percentile among his attacking peers in Europe’s top five leagues, according to FBref.
As Klopp also recognised, the Uruguayan is a “work in progress” who will be granted the time to develop as part of some “wonderful attacking options”.
Mane may have pushed for his exit somewhat, but in their clever forward planning and spending big on a supreme talent, Liverpool have sought to minimise the transition period to what could become another feared front three.
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