It was midway through last week, after Liverpool’s away win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League, that the campaign for Virgil Van Dijk to win the various Player of the Year awards handed out at the end of the season was ramped up. One Twitter poll even questioned whether the Dutch defender is currently at the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not that anyone was getting carried away, of course.
As undeniably impressive as Van Dijk has been for Liverpool this season, though, he might not even be the Anfield club’s Player of the Year. That accolade could feasibly go to Sadio Mane, who scored his 20th goal of the campaign, his 11th in his last 11 appearances, in Sunday’s Squeaky Bum Time win over Fulham.
If Jurgen Klopp’s side are to drag themselves over the line to win their first league title in a generation, a mere winner’s medal won’t be enough to recognise the role Mane has played in recent weeks. Just as Liverpool’s title challenge looked to be stuttering, the Senegalese winger has come up big.
Before this season, Mane had only ever scored 13 goals in a single Premier League campaign. With seven games left to play, the former Southampton man already has 17 in the league this season. Mane has stepped up his final product and that has coincided with a drop off in the productivity of Mohamed Salah in the last few weeks and months.
Much has been said and written about the recent form of the Egyptian. It was at this time last year that Salah caught fire, carrying Liverpool to the final of the Champions League. Indeed, Salah hit such heights that, unlike Van Dijk, he could be credibly compared to Messi and Ronaldo. So where has that player gone?
Salah has drawn a blank in nine of his last 10 appearances, contributing just one assist over that stretch.
The 26-year-old is quite clearly being affected by the scrutiny being applied to his performances, snatching at his chances with some fans even accusing the Egyptian of being greedy. Mane is picking up the goalscoring slack of his teammate, but this is no coincidence. Klopp has made a tactical shift to mitigate Salah’s loss of form, placing more emphasis on Mane. It’s for this reason that the Senegalese winger has found some of the best performances of his career recently.
When all was going right for Salah, his role in the Liverpool team could be classified as more of a wide forward than an orthodox winger. His starting position was, indeed, out wide, but Liverpool’s attacking game plan was to get the Egyptian in behind and driving towards goal. On the opposite flank, Mane’s primary function was to stretch the pitch and provide forward thrust.
Now, the roles have been flipped. Whatever the explanation, Salah has lost his scoring touch and so now his purpose is to stretch the pitch and provide forward thrust, as was previously Mane’s duty. And with Salah doing this job, Mane has been freed up to act as the wide forward. That’s the reason he is now so frequently finding himself in central positions.
Of course, this explanation is somewhat simplistic. There has always been great nuance to the way Klopp’s team attack, with their frontline among the most fluid, interchangeable in all of the European game. But the minor tweaks made by the German coach have kept things ticking along just as it seemed they could stagger to a stop.
Van Dijk will probably win the end-of-season Player of the Year awards and with good reason. The Dutchman’s arrival at Anfield was a turning point for the Reds and the dramatic upturn in their development can be traced back to that moment. However, in terms of individual performances, Mane has made just as big an impact. He’s not the new Salah, but he has stepped into that void.