Liverpool once again proved on Saturday that they will struggle against smaller Premier League sides as they drew 1-1 with Sean Dyche’s Burnley. Despite having 35 shots on goal in the 90 minutes, there was a distinct lack of ruthlessness from the home side, who failed to provide the cutting edge they needed to win the game. Despite Burnley being very organised, there was definitely a lack of exciting spark in the team that could unlock their defence and grab the winner.
The spark I am talking about of course, is the one that comes with Sadio Mané. We suffered last year without him as we’re all aware and after his sending off at Manchester City last week, we didn’t have him available for the Burnley match, and once again, we couldn’t break a time of their calibre down. What’s more, we now go into another 2 games where he is not going to be in our squad, both away at Leicester, where we struggle every year anyway. One of Klopp’s philosophies he’s tried to adopt for Liverpool is to for the team not to rely on one man. We’ve done that far too often in the Premier League era. We’ve relied too heavily on the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez. It looked for all the world that Klopp was starting to push Liverpool away from that bad habit. He had begun to organise us in a way that made it seem every player was contributing with goals and that this team could pick up one or two injuries or suspensions and it would all be OK. However, this is starting to prove not the case. It’s becoming clear for all to see that Liverpool are just shit without Sadio Mané. “Where is the proof?” you ask. “I want to see the numbers!” I hear you say. Well funnily enough, I have the numbers right here.
The stats are indeed worrying. The percentage changes are quite the sight to behold. Obviously we lost him for a couple of spells that season, and the loss in January in particularly really hurt us. The even bigger concern was that the games in which we struggled without him, we weren’t even playing anyone who should be that big of a threat, like the Burnley game. We lost games to Southampton, Wolves and Swansea. Now, I know that the average standard of teams in the league increases with every season, but the common theme with those teams is that they all sit back and defend and become difficult to break down. If we don’t come up with an alternative way to break down these teams, without Mané, we are going to struggle again in the two Leicester games this week. He’ll be back for Newcastle United on the 1st October. The difference now is that we also have Salah who is a similar player, but we’ve seen evidence already that Salah isn’t as clinical and for now needs more time to settle into the Premier League. He took his goal vs Burnley very well so it’s very much a possibility that he could reach that level.
But the question still remains, why is it that Liverpool are so poor when Mané is missing? Other than him being just a superb player all round, there are specific subtle aspects to his game that I think Liverpool really miss when he’s not on the pitch. Obviously, a well-celebrated and acknowledged feature of Jurgen Klopp’s tactics is the counter-press, which is essentially the concept of winning the ball back immediately after losing it, rather than waiting for certain triggers to press. This is something that Sadio Mané does very well. His pace, stamina and overall engine allows him to press defenders effectively high up the pitch when Liverpool don’t have the ball. He does this well both wide, where he can perhaps force a throw-in for his team, or in the half-space, where he can effectively force the opposition to play the ball wide or have to play a searching long ball forward, which can usually be easily defended, or a pass backwards. This is not something Mané does independently, as we prefer to hunt in packs when pressing high up the pitch, but again, his pace is something that contributes massively to this. Adam Lallana is also excellent at executing this tactic, although it has to be said that at this point in Klopp’s reign, the whole squad is fit enough and skilled enough to do it effectively.
Another thing that we miss when Mané is not on the pitch is the danger he brings from playing on the left-hand side, cutting onto his weaker foot. While he has only been doing this for this season (since the arrival of Salah), it can be argued that he is even more dangerous in this position, as once he shifts that ball onto his right foot, cutting in from the left, he is clinical. We saw this against Arsenal at Anfield at the end of August, but even having said this, his weaker left foot can still score some cracking goals. He finished off a great move against Bayern Munich in pre-season with his left, as well as that opening day goal vs Arsenal at the beginning of the 2016/17 season. Firmino, while a top quality player when in the false 9, does not bring such precision and danger when thrown on the left-hand side. Bobby tends to disappear for periods of games when put into that position; he is just simply not as effective when put there.
A win against Leicester tonight is vital. It might be the cup but not only is it important to get back into the swing of winning footie matches, but if we can win well, it will fill us with a bit more confidence that we can actually put in a convincing performance without Mané in the squad. If we can somehow win both games tonight and on Saturday, well…Sadio Who?
By Ben Kelly