Sadio Mane has seemingly won his fitness battle to play for Liverpool this weekend, and the news will no doubt send shivers down Arsenal defenders’ spines.
The Senegal forward appeared to be a doubt for the late kick-off in the Premier League on Saturday after suffering a rib injury against Togo while on international duty last week.
But the 29-year-old handed a major boost to Jurgen Klopp and his men by taking part in team training on Tuesday and showing no ill effects from the blow he took to his chest while playing for Senegal.
Sadio Mane has seemingly won his battle to be fit for Liverpool’s match against Arsenal
Mane has scored six goals in 11 Premier League games for the Reds so far this season
Mane was criticised for a glaring miss the last time he played for the Reds in their 3-2 defeat at West Ham before the international break, with Ian Wright and Steve McManaman among his main detractors.
But he will now come up against an Arsenal side against whom he has scored seven goals in 14 top-flight games, six of which have come during his five-year spell to date at Anfield.
The forward was lucky not to have been sent off in the corresponding fixture last season after elbowing Kieran Tierney in the face, but he has been in devastating goalscoring form whenever he has faced the north London outfit.
His African team-mate Mohamed Salah has taken most of the plaudits when it comes to goals scored this season, albeit rightly so having netted 10 goals in 11 appearances along with six assists.
But his stunning performances have somewhat overshadowed Mane’s vital role in the Klopp’s attacking setup, which was lacking for a good chunk of the second half of last season.
The German boss described Mane’s form this campaign as ‘pretty good’ in a press conference earlier this month, but to what extent is he right? Sportsmail crunches the numbers to assess his season so far…
But he came in for criticism after missing a chance to equalise against West Ham late on
Had it been as serious as initially feared, Mane’s injury may have caused Klopp to change his formation.
That would have provided the German with another conundrum – and he has a couple already with Andy Robertson a major doubt for the Arsenal game – that he simply did not need.
There was never really any concern that Mane no longer fit Liverpool’s system even when he was going through his rough patch in the second half of last season.
But he has still confirmed his importance at the centre of the triumvirate with his commendable return this campaign.
Despite this, there are of course areas which the Senegalese would want to improve on even now.
The Senegal star has no doubt between overshadowed by fellow African Mohamed Salah
Six goals in 11 appearances will never stand out in a team that includes a firing Salah, though that comparison is no slight on Mane given that few in world football can match the Egyptian in that category right now.
Mane’s shooting accuracy excluding blocks of 59.09 is also bettered by four Reds team-mates, but Divock Origi’s two shots on target out of two account for all his Premier League efforts at goal this season, while Fabinho’s is also at 100 per cent.
Salah at 75 per cent and Roberto Firmino – only just – with 60 beat Mane too, and the latter’s return no doubt took a negative twist when he somehow failed to bury Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick with a free header deep into stoppage time at the London Stadium earlier this month.
Salah and Firmino boast a minutes per goal ratios in the 90s compared to the 150s for Mane, and their shot conversion rate including blocks is also far superior in the 20s and 30s.
Moreover, Mane is perhaps the most surprising player in a list of forward-thinking players including Origi, Takumi Minamino and Harvey Elliott to not have registered a top-flight assist this term.
He also has the lowest big chance conversion rate of the five Reds stars to have a return above zero, with Diogo Jota the closest to him on 57 per cent.
Roberto Firmino (left) has a superior return in a number of categories compared to last season
A player who consistently scores more goals than their total xG probably has an above average shooting and/or finishing ability, which makes Salah’s 10 goals with an expected goals ratio of 7.24 simply incredible.
Jota and Firmino also have a superior actual goals figure (four) compared to their xG (3.82 and 3.13), while Mane’s 6.39 expected goals is a touch above the amount he has actually netted.
So why did Klopp come about and state Mane’s stunning performance against Atletico Madrid on November 3 ‘sums up the shape that Sadio is in at the moment, which is pretty good’?
Klopp stopped short of going that far when he was asked repetitively last season if he had concerns over Mane’s form, and while he denied he was worried many would have easily understood if he indeed was.
Mane did not score a Premier League goal between February 7 and April 18 this year, a run of nine scoreless top-flight games before ending the duck at Elland Road. He then netted just another three in the remainder of the campaign.
That inevitably had a negative effect on the rest of his statistics for the second half of last season, and by contrast Mane has immeasurably improved his form. And Mane’s improvement on an individual level, rather than whether he measures up to an unstoppable Salah, will probably be of greater importance to his manager.
He has scored two more goals this season in five fewer games and almost 300 fewer minutes than he had from February to May 2021, and his shot conversion rate was five per cent lower too.
His current average of a goal every 152 minutes may not appear outstanding in comparison to Salah and Firmino, but it represents a number that is very nearly half of the 302 minutes per goal average in the second half of last season.
He has also converted double the amount of big chances this season than he did last term from the same number of big chances created, while his xG of 5.49 while actually scoring just four goals represented another issue last term.
It is not as if he has been peppering the goal with greater frequency either, managing just two more shots and shots on target in 2021-22, but crucially Mane will only have played 16 games this term – the amount he managed from February to the end of the 2020-21 season – when Newcastle visit Anfield on December 16.
Mane broke a nine-game duck without scoring at Leeds in the second half of last season
Neither is it to do with a willingness to get into the area, with touches in the opposition box pretty similar taking into account the number of games played.
A brief look at statistics such as possession won in the final third suggests he was perhaps working harder last season, but then can also be interpreted as the Senegalese trying too hard to work his way back into form. Only he will know.
So where does that leave Mane ahead of the visit of Arsenal to a ground – partly thanks to the ex-Southampton man – where they have notoriously struggled for a large part of the last decade?
Well, despite his shocking miss against West Ham, just a few days before he helped make an Atletico Madrid defence look extremely ordinary in the Champions League and help the Reds qualify for the last 16 of the competition in the process.
The striker hit his eighth goal of the campaign, showing brilliant strength to hold off and evade several challenges from Diego Simeone’s LaLiga champions before poking home Alexander-Arnold’s cross.
But this term he has already managed two more goals than February-May in five fewer games
‘I really hated the moment when I had to take off Sadio,’ Klopp told BT Sport afterwards. ‘Because Sadio played an incredible game.
‘But my worry was about every type of challenge, in the air where you never know what happens if there’s an arm or stuff like this, and one of them goes down and rolls over three times.
‘Then Sadio’s [sent] off and that would have been the wrong thing [to do]. I didn’t like it but in the end I had to do it.’
‘Mane is just a nightmare for a defender to play against, awful,’ Rio Ferdinand said, via the Metro.
‘He’s got everything in his locker. He can out-strength you, out-pace you. He’s got guile, quick feet, he’s got it all. I love watching him.’
All those qualities are features of his game that Arsenal defenders over the years have become accustomed to. Six goals have come against the Gunners, the latest of which last September was converted on the rebound from Salah’s shot to put the Reds in front just 147 seconds after they had been trailing.
Him and Firmino have won seven games each against the north London outfit – albeit the Brazilian having faced them on two more occasions – while the Senegalese has the highest win percentage against Arsenal of all of Liverpool’s much-famed front three.
Mane made one of the Premier League’s most memorable debuts of recent years in August 2016 at the Emirates Stadium, capping his first Liverpool appearance with a fine individual goal.
He made easy work of former Gunners left-back Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers before guiding a wonderful left-footed strike into Petr Cech’s top right-hand corner.
Just more than five years on, he reached a century of goals for the Reds after netting in September against Crystal Palace.
The more ominous sign for the Gunners is that he has failed to score in just one of Liverpool’s five home games so far this term in the top flight, and given Arsenal’s abysmal record there since 2012, Mane could yet be primed to inflict more misery on them.
He has scored six goals against Arsenal for Liverpool, the last of which came in September’s 3-1 win during the 2020-21 campaign