How Sadio Mane's absence could affect Liverpool's title bid
Back in June, Sadio Mane was just another Liverpool raid from Southampton - overpriced, overhyped and overrated. He was reported in several quarters as a signing more in sync with the reality of Liverpool's current predicament than Mario Gotze, World Cup winner and one of the most talented players in the world.
Fast forward seven months, however, and Gotze finds himself struggling to displace 18-year-old Christian Pulisic; while Mane is busy spearheading his country's quest for Africa Cup of Nations success. Klopp revealed recently that he has always regretted his decision not to sign Mane in the summer of 2014 for Dortmund – in his own words, “I wanted to punch myself!” – and Liverpool fans are starting to see why even a tight-fisted manager like the German didn’t have a second thought about the hefty asking price.
In a relatively short period of time, Mane has arguably grown into the one indispensable player in Klopp's thrilling squad. While the Anfield side’s impressive home wins against Leicester and Manchester City were recorded in the absence of Coutinho, there is yet to be a single authoritative Liverpool performance in the absence of Mane.
Origi’s struggles to establish himself as a first-choice forward, along with Sturridge’s loss of pace to injuries, has compounded the problem. The lack of pace in this team is a recurring cause for concern; while Milner in place of Moreno ticks all other boxes, it further exposes Liverpool's chronic lack of pacy options.
It is, therefore, an unfortunate twist of fate on Klopp's part that he finds himself without the Senegalese for the most important month of Liverpool’s campaign. The way Coutinho changed the course of the game after coming on against United highlighted the title-winning pedigree of Klopp's strongest 11 – and a game against leaders Chelsea at Anfield is as close as it gets to a season-defining game.
Going into the game without Mane weakens Klopp's hand considerably, and any result other than a win will effectively place the title beyond the Kop's reach. And that is without even mentioning the cup competitions, where Liverpool face Southampton in the second leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at Anfield.
How long could he be gone?
Senegal is expected to contend strongly for the Africa Cup of Nations – which means Mane’s final match for Senegal at AFCON 2017 could potentially be the final on February 5 – and if that is the case, it puts question marks over his availability for the clash against Tottenham at Anfield on February 11 as well.
Undoubtedly the closest challengers to Chelsea for the title, Tottenham has a backline that is notoriously difficult to breach – having conceded only 14 goals in 21 games at the time of writing. One can imagine Mane's absence won't help – back in August, Danny Rose described Mane as the hardest opponent he has faced in several years.
The absence of the 24-year-old in January is, lest we forget, the least of all possible evils; if he picks up an injury while away at AFCON, it could extend his period of unavailability even longer. The Reds are no strangers to having seasons derailed due to injuries picked up while on international duty – one could argue that Sturridge's injury while away with England represented the point where the wheels started coming off for Rodgers' Liverpool.
One can expect an unusually curious amount of interest in the AFCON from the Merseyside region this time around.
Impact on fellow players
Mane's absence also indirectly takes away the focal point of Klopp's preferred side – in his absence, Firmino plays wide, where he has never seemed even the shadow of the player he is while leading the line. Firmino's intelligent pressing sets the tone for Liverpool's play – so much so that his boss recently referred to him as a bargain at £29 million. Out wide, however, his lack of pace is exposed; his movements are restricted, and his pressing angles are narrowed.
Another option the manager has utilised in the past is to keep Firmino at the centre, at the expense of Lallana, who occupies the winger position in place of his favoured central midfield role. Once again, he struggles to replicate his magnanimous displays; no more late surges into the box, no way around a characteristic lack of pace, and no more displays that make his acquisition seem a masterstroke.
Coutinho also has one target less for his incisive through balls – and lesser space in which to roam around, in the absence of Mane’s pace that stretches the gap between opposition midfield and defence.
The way forward
However, as Klopp would be the first to admit, excuses neither win football matches nor put points on the table. Having been a victim previously, with untimely injuries to the likes of Gotze and Reus while at Dortmund, Klopp and his coaching team once again need to come up with the goods if they are to remain in the title race.
Just as the team eventually steadied the ship after struggling initially post Coutinho's injury (they lost 4-3 to Bournemouth and drew 2-2 to West Ham at Anfield in the 2 games immediately following his injury), Liverpool fans would hope that the lacklustre display against Southampton and conservative display against United in the league represent minor blips – on the path to moulding a team that can do without their £35 million bargain.