Liverpool got off to a flying start in the Premier League and although results weren’t going their way, their performances were certainly there for everyone to see. Despite conceding a late equaliser against Watford, they then went on to win four games in a row, including a rampant 4-0 victory over rivals Arsenal.
It was with this victory, many expected to see a real title challenge from Jurgen Klopp’s men, one they haven’t seen since 2012. In order to set an early marker, they needed to beat the very best. Unfortunately, what happened in their next fixture, against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, was anything but.
Even though it meant losing three points to their title rivals, it meant even more that they lost Sadio Mane through suspension for three games, following his high-foot clash with City ‘keeper Ederson. This controversial incident was deemed as a reckless, injury-inducing tackle which meant a three-game ban for the Senegalese international.
For Klopp and Liverpool, this meant a big blow going into the next three fixtures against Burnley and twice against Leicester City. Of course, these seemed like easy fixtures and one which you’d expect the calibre of Liverpool to claim maximum points. However, from six points available, the Reds only took two. The other game was a knockout in the Carabao Cup.
So, what was missing? Was it really Mane who had that much of an influence?
Liverpool play fast attacking football which normally results in a dividend of shots and goals. Even if their forwards aren’t the most clinical, you can normally assume Klopp’s men will outgun the opposition because they create so many opportunities. One man you could rely on to finish those chances was Mane.
His acceleration, skill and finishing are one of the best combinations in the league and for a winger to be getting double-figure goals in every season he’s been in the Premier League, three so far, that’s an astonishing achievement. He’s one of the best in-form forwards a club could have and has been very influential in getting Liverpool Champions League football again.
Looking back at the games Mane had featured in, he scored three goals in five appearances, including the winner against Crystal Palace, and two goals within Liverpool’s opening two games. After the red card, he featured in their 1-1 draw at Newcastle and could only help his side to a point.
During that absence, Mane stated he was finding it difficult to watch his side struggle without him. “It is not an easy time for me because I would love to play all the time and help my team-mates. It’s bad, but I have to accept the suspension and wait until my comeback.”
While he waited, so did Liverpool fans to see a victory without their star man in the squad. The solitary win came in Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over Leicester City which exploited their weak defence and forced the Reds to be at the top of their game to squeeze out maximum points. It was a sigh of relief, however, especially knowing that now Mané would return.
However, just a couple of days ago, news broke that the 25-year-old had suffered a hamstring injury, meaning a six-week layoff. Not only is that big blow, but it also means Mané will now miss crucial fixtures against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton. If he’s back in time, he should make it for the game against Chelsea but will he be back to 100% by then?
Does the absence provide opportunity?
This now spells an opportunity for Phillipe Coutinho to win the hearts of fans back again by playing a more forward role, one which he used to occupy before fellow-forward Mohamed Salah arrived at the club. Although Coutinho has been excellent since coming back into the side, he was playing a slightly deeper role in midfield to accommodate the wingers, Mane and Salah. But now with Mané out for a long time, Coutinho will reprise his role as a forward and get the chance to score more goals.
On top of that, fellow Brazilian Roberto Firminho has seen his chances limited as Mane, Sturridge and Salah are given opportunities, so this may be a blessing in disguise for Firminho to show his real potential.
Finally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was the Reds’ second-biggest signing of the summer, has not enjoyed the best of starts for his new club. Will this spot now be open for him to get some regular game time? Although he has stated his main reason to come to Merseyside was to play centrally, will he turn down the chance to play on the wing? Or will Klopp trust him to step into Coutinho’s position as the Brazilian moves further forward?
It all remains to be seen in the next few fixtures. Although it will look like Liverpool will struggle without Mane in their side, they do have some excellent talent already and should be able to progress through the weeks ahead, even if they have to work harder. It’s now a real test for Klopp on what he can do when injury strikes.