There’s something different about the air in Liverpool this year. The fans, those indefatigable optimists, unsurprisingly hope for the best. In the recent years, that firm belief in their side has transformed into cautious optimism as other teams in the league have made great strides, while Liverpool seem to go through a frustratingly familiar routine each time.
Certainly, although Jurgen Klopp – a manager with a prior track record matched by no one since Rafa Benitez – has enjoyed a pre-season to get his ideas across more emphatically, revamp fitness training and conduct transfer business, the cold, hard facts of last season do nothing to enhance Liverpool’s case for a little more optimism in fans.
Eighth place in the league – the joint third-lowest position for the club since promotion in 1962, to go along with the 1963 and 2012 campaigns – two cup final defeats, 63 goals scored and 50 conceded, an uninspiring tally of 16 wins – it’s easy to see what precedes these cautious expectations.
However, there are glimmers of hope. Heartbreaking they may have been, but the two cup final appearances provide some ground to build on. Crucially, this is the first time in three summers that Liverpool have not lost a key or influential player in the transfer market, following the departures of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, and Steven Gerrard. Signing new players in the summer is only half the battle; keeping already established ones is a slightly understated, although arguably more important challenge.
In fact, Liverpool have made significant additions to the squad, with a refreshing amount of focus directed at problematic areas of the pitch. One of such additions is Sadio Mane, a big-money signing from Southampton meant to add firepower to Liverpool’s attack.
On the face of it, the transfer looks like a classically Liverpool purchase. A devastating forward plying his trade for a club of a more modest international profile than the Merseysiders, renowned for excelling in streaks of unplayable form, before plummeting to ponderous and ineffectual depths, during which time each comment section, each message board, each opinion piece will tut-tut at the predictable way the whole episode unfolded and wonder why, despite numerous similar cases, why the club continue to behave similarly each time. Once bitten, twice shy? More like six times bitten, never shy.
Mane is not the kind to be the face of an attack, and in fairness, Liverpool are not attempting to cast him in such a role. Dismissing him as identical in destiny as those that preceded him is hasty, and more than a little unwise. Even on the face of it, Mane has attributes that Christian Benteke is simply not blessed with: coruscating speed, versatility in attack and an appetite for both goals and assists.
The jet-heeled Mane appears not just your usual ‘quick and deadly’ forward, but also a counter-attacking ideologue, a footballer seemingly purpose built for Jurgen Klopp’s famous pressing-and-breaking game employed to great effect at Borussia Dortmund.
Raw pace is one of the most genuinely exciting things in any sport. In cricket, grip and turn can be countered by flat pitches, or seam movement can be rendered pedestrian by clear, bright conditions. But, speed is a quality that is terrifying, overwhelming and has very few answers.
It has been a long time since Liverpool possessed a forward of such great pace that defenders were scared silly. Although Mane is no Malcolm Marshall, the fear that the mere threat (and not even his actual performance) of him strikes in opposition is real and inhibits them.
Despite his inconsistency, Mane’s raw figures actually appear fine. His two-and-a-bit seasons in Austria produced 45 goals in 87 games – a rate of one goal every 1.93 games. In two seasons at Southampton, his league figures read 21 goals in 67 games in all competitions – at one goal every 3.19 games. When considering all competitions, it sharpens to 25 goals in 75 games at a goal every three games.
These 21 goals are also joined by 9 assists over the course of two seasons, and although fans and critics alike would be justified in asking why £34 million can’t buy you more even in this inflated transfer market, they do not provide the complete picture.
Mane is 24, and surely, unlike certain other purchases from Southampton, his best years lie ahead of him. In the case of Adam Lallana, for instance, it seemed a ceiling had been hit, and that he was unlikely to improve significantly. Mane is, on the other hand, perhaps primed to make the best of his mid-20s on Merseyside.
Also, Liverpool seem to be moving towards a slightly more egalitarian distribution of the creative and goal-scoring burden under Klopp. Last season, no fewer than five players hit double figures for goals in all competitions. It suggests that Liverpool are no longer a side dominated by a lead and backing singer, but rather an entire group harmony. Besides Mane, Danny Ings, Divock Origi, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Lallana himself will be expected to contribute in no small measure, and by and large, will be competing for the same spots in the team.
The role would appear to suit Mane. Slotting his vocals into this harmony will be the main challenge, and it is a role he has played before at Southampton. His pace and directness should give him an edge over the more methodical lock pickers in Coutinho and Lallana. Liverpool have lacked a real scorcher in recent years.
Ultimately, the signing of Mane does not appear that strange for a club with designs on staying with the times. As the game changes and evolves, the demands of forwards have also changed. They have become more rounded in a sense, able to score as well as create with equal ease (Marco Reus is perhaps the prototype of the modern forward), and the proverbial 20-goal-a-season and 15-assist-a-season players have given way to a demand for 15-goal-and-15-assist-a-season players. It was an ability that elevated Roberto Baggio to the status of a legend twenty-five years ago, and it is an ability that, though more widely available, is just as valuable now.
There are many players in the Liverpool squad who are capable of such a feat, but all, including the new arrival Mane, have been dogged by inconsistency. The challenge, now, is to kick on and realise that red-hot form over the course of a season.