The Debate: Why Sadio Mane must be PFA Player of the Year
Introducing Eurosport’s new series: The Debate. Each week, four writers will argue a set topic from Monday to Thursday before having their views picked apart in a vodcast on Friday. Then it’s over to you to choose our winner via a poll on Twitter! We begin with the race for men’s PFA Player of the Year. Marcus Foley makes the case for Sadio Mane...
- The Debate: Why Virgil van Dijk should win PFA Player of the Year
- The Debate: Why Kevin de Bruyne should win PFA Player of the Year
- The Debate: Why Jordan Henderson deserves to be the PFA Player of the Year
Sadio Mane is the best player for the world and European champions. That alone should end the debate. He is the best player in a generational team. However, more than that, Mane is the embodiment of a Jurgen Klopp side. Hugely talented; incredibly selfless. The Senegalese has abundant talent; yet every season he adapts for the betterment of the team. In the five years Klopp has been at the helm the former Southampton man has played slightly different roles, improving year on year.
He has become to Liverpool's attack what Virgil van Dijk is to their defence: the centrepiece. Many speak of the importance of Roberto Firmino but he fills one specific position whilst Mane can operate - and operate effectively - in any position across the front three.
It speaks to his adaptability that when he first arrived at Liverpool, he operated from the right, where he excelled, but moved to the left when Mohamed Salah was signed. He is now exclusively thought of as a left-sided forward but that is not the case - his brilliance has dictated his association with that position. Salah and Firmino have very specific skillsets which allow for them to excel in the very specific roles they have in Klopp's team. Mane also excels in a specific role but is not wedded to it because he is a generally excellent all-round player.
Furthermore, the 27-year-old is a more considered player than those usually associated with individual awards; his decision making - nearly always perfect - is team first, which, at times, can't be said of say, Salah, whose first consideration is goal, which is fair enough as the team's chief goalscorer.
The differing approaches were probably best evidenced by their altercation during the Reds' match against Burnley in August. Liverpool were winning 3-0 and Salah was through on goal but should have passed. It was the best option for the team - the option Mane would have almost certainly taken - but the Egyptian attempted to fashion a shot on goal for himself. Mane let his feelings be known. As in life, the ends often justify the means, and in 2017-18 at least - the year he was honoured as the league's best player by his fellow professionals - the net certainly rustled for Salah.
A cursory glance at Mane's goals and assists ratios tells of a player who picks up the slack where the team needs it. In his first season he hit 13 goals and five assists and followed that up in 2017-18 – Salah’s 32-goals-in-34-games season – by increasing his creative output, providing seven assists and scoring 10 goals. Mane adapts to those around him. Last season, when Salah’s goal ratio dipped to 22 in 37, Mane stepped up hitting 22 in 35, providing just one assist. This season he managed to combine the two, scoring 14 goals and providing seven assists in 24 starts.
And perhaps that may be where Mane's candidacy for individual awards may suffer. This team-first approach sometimes masks his personal brilliance.
Yet, he is individually brilliant. He has to this observer's eye, the best first touch in the Premier League. The purest example of this was the goal he scored coming off the bench against Norwich back in February to lead the Reds to a 1-0 win at Carrow Road. Much has been made of Liverpool's lack of relative creativity in central areas, and there is truth in that. None of their starting midfield would be described as true ball players, but Mane is a central midfield player's dream, as that Norwich goal demonstrated.
Jordan Henderson's clipped through ball was aimed at Mane but lacked the required accuracy, dropping on his blindside and over his shoulder, but the 27-year-old managed to read the flight of the ball, somehow take it in stride and dispatch it past Tim Krul all in one swift movement. It is not too far a stretch to say that no other player in the league would have scored that goal.
It was an important goal, and Mane has a knack of making important, decisive interventions. There are higher profile examples, say both Champions League finals, scoring in one and winning the penalty in the other. But there are less high-profile examples like the Aston Villa game back in November when the title race was very much on. Liverpool were losing 1-0 as the game edged into added time only for Mane to set up the leveller for Andy Robertson and score the winner. And that encompassed his importance to Liverpool, not only a goalscorer but an excellent creator and provider with a superb understanding of space and weight of pass.
Mane is a master of all trades, a jack of none. He is a goalscorer, a creator, a selfless defender. He never stops - he is the embodiment of this Klopp team. Players lead in many different ways - some shout and bawl, others lead by their brilliance married with a ferocious work ethic. Mane is the latter and would be a deserving winner of the PFA Player of the Year Award.