For the last few years, Liverpool has been a club standing just outside a party they desperately want to attend, and quite clearly think they should have been invited to. There is a collection of teams at the top of European football — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and the two Manchester clubs — where every good player seems to eventually wind up. If one of those clubs happen to lose a player, it’s usually to another in that group. In the annual “100 best footballers” list that The Guardian published in December, nine of the top 10 players played for one of those clubs (and the 10th, Alexis Sánchez, used to play for Barcelona). When someone like Paul Pogba hits the market, there’s not a lot of mystery about where he might wind up. It’s one of the big six.
But there are more than six great managers in the game. And if a club can’t buy the best players, it can at least buy great style. That’s what Liverpool did when they hired Klopp in October. He replaced Brendan Rodgers, and brought his “heavy metal football” philosophy with him from Germany, where he managed Borussia Dortmund. There were highs (making it to two cup finals) and lows (losing both cup finals), but perhaps more important to the club, long term, there was an obvious commitment to his style of play. He just needed the right players to better realize the vision.
What’s the vision? Klopp is one of the chief proponents of gegenpressing, or counterpressing — a defensive tactic in which a team seizes on the moment the opposition takes possession of the ball. In Klopp’s system, the best time to win the ball back is when you’ve just lost it. And the best place to win the ball is as close to the opponent’s goal as possible.
This requires forwards and attacking midfielders who play like they just sniffed smelling salts. The ideal offensive player is fast, creative, tenacious, fast, direct, fast, adept at dribbling, and fast. Sadio Mané is 24, has played in France and Austria, and put in two years at Southampton. That’s his biography. Here’s his superhero origin story: He was created in a lab to play for Jürgen Klopp.
On Sunday, Liverpool beat Arsenal, 4–3, to open the season. Mané ended the match with one goal, three shots, six tackles (that’s important), and 26 of 29 passes completed.
He was nominally playing on the right wing (six tackles!), as part of a three-man forward line with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, but at various moments Mané popped up as a left winger, as a striker, as a creative playmaker up the middle, as a deep-lying midfielder, and as a fullback. He has a loping running style, and a speed burst that allows him to split defenders who converge on him from two angles. His style embodies the kind of football that Klopp wants to play: You never see him standing flat-footed, he’s always active, always hunting for the ball on defense, relentlessly heading toward goal in possession. Liverpool want to overwhelm, and Mané is an overwhelming player.
You know the cliché “it was a game of two halves”? The Arsenal-Liverpool match was a game of 15 minutes. At the beginning of the second half, play-by-play announcer Jon Champion uttered, “It’s as if Liverpool had an energy drink, and Arsenal a sedative.” Liverpool scored three goals in 15 minutes, and that included stoppages for two Arsenal players to leave the game with injuries. There’s heavy metal football, and then there’s taking someone’s head and holding it against a guitar amp while “Angel of Death” plays. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, that’s what Liverpool did to the Gunners.
In the 56th minute, Mané hounded Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi up the sideline, dispossessed him, and took off toward Arsenal’s goal. Iwobi was able to knock the ball out of play, right in front of Klopp’s technical area. There was a brief stoppage, and Klopp took the opportunity to dap Mané up and then lovingly head-butt him before the game started again.
I’m not saying that Klopp’s encouragement had a cause-and-effect impact on the goal that Mané scored less than 10 minutes later. But I’m not not saying it had an impact.
The goal led to the most amusing celebration of the weekend, with Mané leaping onto Klopp’s back for a piggyback ride.
It was a piggyback ride that taunted the football gods. “I knew in the moment, but it was too late — I had Sadio on my back and in this moment we switched off the machine for a second,” Klopp said after the game. “It was so intense, it was so wrong, it was the first game.” Arsenal clawed their way back into the match and turned a blowout into a nail-biter. Then, on Wednesday morning, news broke the Mané had been involved in a training ground collision, picking up a minor shoulder injury. Ye gods, indeed.
Even if Mané misses Liverpool’s next match, against Burnley, his performance on Sunday — visiting an upper-echelon Premier League team and scoring in his first competitive match for his new club — will make Liverpool feel as though the €41 million they paid Southampton for him was money well spent. He scored 11 goals and added six assists last season, with a scoring profile that put him in the same elite attacking winger company as Riyad Mahrez and Alexis Sánchez. Liverpool knew they were getting a good player. But more importantly, they got the right player.