It’s a sign of a very good player when even the euphoria about signing one of the most exciting attacking talents in world football can’t quite compensate for his departure.
This is where Liverpool is – delighted with the record Arrival of Darwin Nunez, but saddened by the end of Sadio Mane’s outstanding six years at Anfield.
Mane’s move to Bayern Munich leaves one of the Premier League’s greatest forward lines in history without a key component – one that has scored 120 goals in 269 games to help Liverpool win every major trophy available.
BBC Sport examines the Senegalese striker’s impact on Liverpool and what their transformed forward line needs to thrive without him.
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“He was amazing”
As the season progressed, with many talks but no confirmation of a contract extension for Mane, Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino beyond 2023, the likelihood grew that one or more of them would leave.
Before the Champions League final with Real Madrid Salah promised He would be at the club next season but Mane has been coy about his future and has now forced Liverpool’s hand.
His departure acts as a bookend of sorts for the first phase of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure as manager, which has seen the club rise to the top of the global game.
Mane was the German’s first major signing at Liverpool, taking a well-trodden path from Southampton to Merseyside in 2016 for £34million.
His 13 goals in his first season helped Liverpool return to the Champions League after a few seasons and paved the way for the remarkable winning streak that followed.
Within two years they were European champions and 12 months later they won the Premier League for the first time in 30 years.
They have also been runners-up twice in the Champions League and finished runners-up twice in the Premier League, including the 2021-22 season in which they won the FA and League Cup.
The summer following Manes’ arrival, Salah signed and, along with Firmino, formed one of the finest forward ranks in English football history. It produced 338 goals in five seasons in all competitions.
During that time, Mane has displayed a positional versatility that few possess. He played at right in his debut season, then switched to a predominantly left role to accommodate Salah and more recently excelled at centre.
With this trio in their 30s or nearer, the development of Liverpool’s attacking squad was well under way even before Manes’ departure, with the signing and integration of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz and the recent acquisition of exciting young talent Fabio Carvalho from Fulham.
Signing Nunez before the summer transfer window opened was another proactive move by Liverpool.
However, Mane has shown no signs of fading. Far from it. His form in the second half of 2021/22 was exceptional and contributed as much as anyone as the club struggled on four fronts to the end.
He scored home and away against Villarreal in the Champions League semifinals. It was his goal that gave Liverpool a Premier League point at Manchester City in April and his superb header that kept the title bid alive at Aston Villa the following month.
Overall, he netted 13 times in 27 games, mostly acting as number 9 after helping Senegal Win the Africa Cup of Nations in February. In the penalty shoot-out against Egypt, he scored the decisive penalty in the final.
“He’s been incredible for the last four or five years,” former Manchester City midfielder and Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure told BBC World Service.
“Without disrespect to Mohamed Salah who was also brilliant, Raheem Sterling, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, how can you tell me this boy isn’t in the top three of the Ballon d’Or? How is that possible?
“He’s at the top in terms of winning trophies. Liverpool are everywhere at the moment – Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup.”
With Mane now joining Divock Origi from the Anfield exit and Takumi Minamino available For a move, all eyes will be on who comes to bolster Liverpool’s attacking resources.
Darwin’s theory of evolution
An instinctive eye for goals is par for the course in a potential Mane successor. The forward is averaging 20 goals a season in all Liverpool competitions, many of them well-shot, predatory firsts with his feet or head.
Last season, his 16 league goals fell just short of his expected goals (xG) of 18.34, according to Opta, with his shot conversion rate 16.33% lower than some of his peers but on par with teammate Jota (16.67 ). and Salah (16.55).
Mane has great awareness and timing to find space and capitalize on it. Coupled with this is his ability to dribble and pass, making him just as difficult an opponent outside the box as inside.
Strength, speed and acceleration are great assets of his, not only for his offensive performance but also for what he brings to a team that likes to press hard from the front.
According to football statistics website FBref.com, Liverpool’s proactive approach to the market has already paid off, with Diaz and Jota Mane coming closest in style and performance in the winger and forward categories respectively.
Jota delivered very similar offensive numbers (21 goals and eight assists), made for an even more efficient pressing game and showed a versatility to play the full line of attack.
In just a few months, Diaz has shown he can deliver goals, assists and more from the left of attack, with his directness and slightly superior dribbling helping him create 1.54 chances per game versus Manes’ 1.21 in the last season.
Rather than being a straight Mane replacement, Nunez ticks a slightly different box – as a predominantly central forward with the ability to move well and an elite eye for goal.
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 runs with better time and Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, he could have had three or four at Anfield alone.
Fast, skilful, an extremely competent ball carrier – it’s clear why Klopp is so excited about Nunez’s signing, telling the Liverpool website: “He’s got all the pieces we’re looking for. He can set the pace, brings energy, can threaten Space made up of central and wide areas and it is aggressive and dynamic in its movement.
Most importantly, Nunez can close. Last year his goals per shot (0.31 per 90 minutes) and xG without penalties (+0.41 per 90) put him in the 99th percentile of his attacking peers in Europe’s top five leagues, according to FBref.
As Klopp also recognized, the Uruguayan is a ‘work in progress’ given time to develop as part of some ‘wonderful attacking options’.
Mane may have been pushing for his departure but Liverpool have tried to minimize the transition period into another dreaded front three by planning ahead and spending heavily on an outstanding talent.