EPL TALK: Liverpool making huge gamble in letting Mane go
THE end of the affair between Liverpool and Sadio Mane has to be the most amicable breakup since Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin had a conscious uncoupling.
Everyone remains on friendly terms. There’s no bitterness or rancour, just a promise no doubt to share the six trophies at weekends.
In the age of absolutes and hyperbole, Mane’s move from Liverpool to Bayern Munich is a transfer deal with no losers apparently. The striker gets to relight his fire like a '90s boy band, the Germans get a readymade replacement for the sulky Robert Lewandowski and the Reds can offset some of the cash lavished on Darwin Núñez.
It’s a wonder Mane, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and his Bayern counterpart Julian Nagelsmann haven’t released a promo video showing the trio releasing doves of peace into a sunny sky, followed by a group hug at the tear-inducing denouement.
In other news, one of the world’s leading strikers left one of the world’s leading clubs with nary a murmur of dissent in the media, which was a tad unusual.
Both Manchester United and Liverpool’s support bases usually offer tremendous pantomime fun in their eagerness to "out-martyr" the other … Our club gets criticised more than your club! … Imagine what would happen if our club did what your club did! … That sort of thing.
But it is worth pondering, in this instance, what the response might have been if a footballer of Mane’s calibre had left the Red Devils at the peak of his powers. All right, United do not boast a player of Mane’s calibre, but it’s still a question worth asking.
Yes, the negotiations between the Senegalese centre-forward and the two clubs negotiating his sale and purchase were refreshingly polite in an era of perpetual leaks and raging agents. But Mane isn’t Divock Origi.
The departed Belgian was a cult hero often found at most clubs. Quirky, loveable and wildly erratic but with a penchant for scoring crucial goals in the most spectacular of circumstances, the cult hero will invariably get his name chanted after his departure, along with a guarantee of a lucrative, post-playing career on the legends circuit.
But Mane was a once-in-a-generation kind of a footballer, an era-defining talent that shaped his skills into whatever was needed, on any given Sunday, on any occasion.
His 120 goals and 48 assists in 269 appearances tell part of his story. His six trophies, all the ones worth winning, contribute a major chunk to the narrative. While his 23 goals last season - along with starting 32 of the Reds’ EPL games and 11 of their 13 Champions League contests - underscore the extraordinary consistency.
And still, remarkably, the picture is incomplete. The 30-year-old did so much more. He plugged holes. Different holes. For years. Like an exemplary plumber with a spanner in every one of Klopp’s works, Mane didn’t just contribute to Liverpool’s most successful period in modern history. He made it. He sacrificed himself in ways beyond the skillsets of his illustrious teammates.
Mo Salah scored the more flamboyant goals and won the majority of individual honours. Roberto Firmino developed the reputation for being the cerebral one, the all-seeing Brazilian with an eye for every line and threaded pass. But they remain the same magnificent players, for the most part.
Mane, on the other hand, underwent a staggering metamorphosis. His arrival at Anfield in 2016 brought physicality, aggression and an instinctive decisiveness in the penalty box. And his peerless work ethic made pundit Jamie Carragher declare his love for the striker live on air. But Mane operated mostly from the right.
Until he didn’t.
After Salah turned up, Mane moved to the left and drove his side towards their first Premier League title from a new position. More recently, he has often played through the middle.
Núñez, who only turns 23 this week, isn’t replacing one forward, but three - a relentless trickster, capable of darting inside from the left or right or leading the charge as a No.9. Mane was both a complete striker and a chameleonic presence, omnipotent and omnipresent.
Good luck, Núñez.
Of course, the young Uruguayan could be a revelation. Klopp’s ability to operate within a comparatively tight financial arrangement is unsurpassed. (Only Pep Guardiola can lavish £100 million on the latest great white hope among English mavericks, knowing that Jack Grealish might have more impact with hairband sales than on a pitch.)
Klopp’s signings are targeted and calculated. He sells old and buys young. Taking the numbers in isolation, selling a 30-year-old with a year left on his contract for £35 million and throwing the sum towards the £85 million needed to secure a player seven years younger appears to be impeccable business, refining the Philippe Coutinho model once more.
But the risks are different. Coutinho never transformed his game, several times, to accommodate the fluctuating positional and tactical requirements of such a successful, evolving squad. And Mane is hardly standing on the brink of inevitable decline.
Sergio Aguero arguably was, when he and Manchester City parted ways. If anything, Guardiola has a tendency to hang on to ageing stalwarts and dressing room generals for longer than most (he has a financial buffer that other managers do not.)
The closest example might be Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to replace key members of a squad that had also ended a long title drought, when he famously off-loaded Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in the mid-90s, but he was aware of the startling progress of the Class of 92 at the United academy. He knew what was coming.
Plus, a thirty-something striker in the mid-90s was not the sinewy, athletic specimen of today. He was often a meat pie away from a potbelly and early retirement rather than a bumper payday at the Allianz Arena.
Mane is different. His exit, no matter how warm and friendly, is still a risk. An unavoidable risk, perhaps, but one that cannot be categorised in saccharine analysis as a transfer deal with no losers.
(Mane's) exit, no matter how warm and friendly, is still a risk. An unavoidable risk, perhaps, but one that cannot be categorised in saccharine analysis as a transfer deal with no losers.
Maybe that’ll still prove to be the case. Klopp’s impeccable track record certainly earns the benefit of the doubt and leading sides must evolve.
But Liverpool’s original triumvirate is no more. Their most versatile forward has gone. Mane was an everyman sort of hero because he played everywhere.
Núñez doesn’t need to concern himself with the price tag, just the idea of replacing someone who proved to be priceless.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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