Virgil van Dijk was a strong contender but lost out to Lionel Messi. Mohamed Salah was tipped for a high finish after building on his remarkable 2017/18 campaign and his fifth-place finish was deserved. However, very few envisaged him finishing behind two team-mates. But this was the case with Sadio Mané pipping the Egyptian to clinch a top-four place.
The Liverpool No.10 claimed an unlikely Golden Boot award, sharing the accolade with Salah and Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after netting 22 goals during 2018/19. It was the Senegal international’s best return in a single campaign and just one shy of his total when combining his first two seasons with the Merseysiders.
When the reigning European champions decided to part ways with a near club-record fee in the summer of 2016 to land Mané, eyebrows were raised. He’d taken to the Premier League like a duck to water, scoring 21 goals across two seasons with Southampton. But he wasn’t the most consistent player, often going long periods without a goal or an assist.
It was a similar story for Mané at Red Bull Salzburg, too. He’d flip flop between devastating and frustrating. But like with most players under Jurgen Klopp, the 27-year-old improved. The assumption might be the speedster reacted to having better players alongside him and there’s no doubt that has helped. But that would be doing a disservice to the effort the Liverpool forward has gone to behind the scenes to take his game to the next level.
Mané’s game was always built around unpredictability. He was often deployed as a left forward but, unlike most inverted wingers, he wasn’t exclusively looking to cut inside onto his favoured right foot. He was at ease going down the outside and he was more than comfortable shooting with his weaker foot. Opposition players didn’t know whether to get tight to him or stand off him. Because of this, there was no easy way to defend against him.
However, he wasn’t always the most prolific. The post-shot expected goals stats highlighted his profligacy. This stat looks at where the shot was taken from and there the effort goes on target in an attempt to identify which players add value to their shots. For example, during the 2017/18 season, Mané’s expected goals per 90 average was 0.48. His post-shot expected goals average was 0.38. Despite getting into good areas on a regular basis, his finishing was preventing him improving his tally.
During that campaign, the versatile forward had 20 shots with his left foot and 15 per cent of those found the back of the net. He had double the amount of efforts with his right but converted just 17 per cent. The Reds addressed that, with foot usage is something that is worked on during the technical analysis part of training sessions.
The following season saw quite an improvement. His shot total remained fairly similar, 23 via the left foot and 42 right-footed efforts, but he was adding real value to his chances. He finished the campaign with an expected goals average of 0.44 and a post-shot expected goals per 90 total of 0.53.
It had quite the impact on his output, with 21 per cent of his shots on his left foot resulting in a goal while 26 per cent of shots taken on his right found the back of the net. For a little more context, 81 per cent of Salah’s Premier League goals last season were via his stronger foot compared to the Senegalese speedster’s 55 per cent.
Mané has set about showing the world that the 2018/19 season wasn’t a one-off. So far this term he’s needed nine times in the Premier League. The 5ft 7ins forward has two headed goals to his name while the remaining nine are split six to three in favour of his right foot. But three of his five assists have come via his left foot meaning goal involvements per foot are almost split equally.
Furthermore, an astonishing 37 per cent of his left-footed attempts have beaten the goalkeeper while he’s scored 23 per cent of his right-footed efforts. What separates the Liverpool forward from others is the fact he went about improving his finishing in general. Others would concentrate on improving finishing with their favoured foot but Mané realised the importance of being unpredictable.
As a dribbler, it is a requirement to use both feet but players often overlook this and in turn become somewhat one-dimensional. But Mané’s unpredictability on the ball leads to chances on either side and he’s ensured his perceived weaker foot is as dangerous as his stronger one. Because of this, he’s scoring more goals than ever and it’s why he’s one of the most-feared strikers in world football today.