Herbert Chapman – Arsenal coach of the 1930’s, gentleman and general pioneer of modern football – was a revolutionary, but a conservative one; evolutionary, you might say. Because though he ambitious, he was calculated: he built from the back, and for an era of 2-3-5, that was really quite a weird thing to do. It was the biggest tactical advance that English football had made all century: Chapman created a role for a less technical footballer, the centre-half, and told them that their job was to stop the other side attacking – it seemed like anti-football at the time – and with it, came the WM formation: effectively a 3-2-2-3.
Chapman’s innovation was based on safety first. He never intended to revolutionise the winger’s role, but for the next thirty-odd years, Britain produced a plethora talented wide-men, able to slot into the WM system; players at Arsenal under Chapman like Alex James, or like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney further up north – ask your granddad – up until Alf Ramsey won the World Cup without wingers, in basically a 4-3-3.
You see, wingers are so often on the periphery of a system. Maybe there’s a link to the number 11 being the last role considered in the team; it drew gasps in a press conference in 1966 when Ramsey dramatically read out the last name on his teamsheet as Martin Peters, a midfielder, kick-starting the legend of his “wingless wonders”.
But no matter what’s happening in the middle of the pitch, someone needs to stretch it out wide, too.
In more recent times, Premier League teams have again been modifying the way they defend. Jürgen Klopp may not suit a bowler hat like Herbert Chapman; he has a footballing background from post-Cold War West Germany, as opposed to post-WW1 Huddersfield. Chapman shored up his backline, Klopp defends from the front. But while both managers implemented tactical revolutions to help themselves out of possession, both relied on the movement, creativity and importance of someone on the flank.
To the lazy onlooker of Liverpool under Klopp, the most exciting development at the club is almost certainly the way they attack, not the way they defend. The interplay between the front four or five last season produced sparkling moments, with Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana all flourishing under Klopp’s fluid system. Defensively, Liverpool have shape, but in attack, the unpredictability of their play is a joy to watch.
Would Sadio Mané be in your team of the season so far? pic.twitter.com/akdZ6BKMEJ
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) October 6, 2016
Sadio Mané is a key piece in this jigsaw.
With pace, power, aggression and a stint at St Mary’s, the Senegalese is the prototypical Liverpool winger for Klopp. While Victor Wanyama left the south coast for less than Liverpool shipped Jordon Ibe out for, Southampton demanded £34 million for Mané: that made him not just Klopp’s record signing, but the most expensive African footballer ever. For a manager who doesn’t often shell out that much for a player, that’s a lot of faith. Especially when Klopp himself claims, “We don’t have real wingers”.
That faith is founded in Mané’s return though. He’s now averaging a goal every other game this season, his best form since arriving in English football. Though he’s deployed on the right of Jürgen’s 4-3-3, he’s often a focal point in the attacking phase. And when he’s not around, Liverpool struggle. Towards the end of January, Liverpool had won 71.4% of the games that Mané had played, and just 33.3% of the ones he hadn’t.
Top six's attackers measured by goals per 90 minutes (X axis), chances created per 90 minutes (Y axis) and number of minutes played. pic.twitter.com/91l4MhcOdV
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) March 20, 2017
Win percentages are one thing, but this graph shows something very different.
Here, some of the top six’s top attackers are arranged by goals scored and chances created; you’ll notice that the out and out goalscorers of the league – the Ibrahimovićs, Girouds, Kanes and Costas – tend to be positioned to the right. Creative midfielders – De Bruyne, Eriksen, Pogba – are further towards the bottom-left.
Liverpool’s contingent are highlighted in orange. While they have a consistent pack of Lallana, Firmino and Coutinho, all chipping in with goals and assists, Mané sits further to the right, alongside Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min. Often this season, Klopp has opted for Firmino as a false nine; this graph shows how superbly the Brazilian drifts out of his position though, as he creates more chances than the average striker. Despite the interweaving of the Reds’ attack, it’s clearly Mané from this graph who’s the primary source of goals.
“We don’t think too much about system. System is just what you give the players to show them where they have to defend. Offensively, we don’t have real wingers; with Sadio, we have a real winger maybe who can be a really direct player, play isolated on the wing, then make the difference. We thought, ‘What kind of players [do] we have?’ and we thought about how we can get [the most out of them] in the right position… that’s the reason for the system… a lot of teams play it, we play it our way. Sadio brings a new skill in with his speed, which is nice.”
Klopp may say he doesn’t have “real wingers”, but then any Sadiohead will tell you that Mané isn’t like most wingers. Most wide-men rely on pace as their strongest suit, but while Mané has it in abundance, it’s his intelligence that tears defences apart. He makes the right decision more than most. He has averaged 1.56 key passes per 90 minutes this season. He’s never on the periphery for long, “isolated”, as Klopp might put it. His drifts inside are what make Liverpool ferociously hard to defend against, especially when Liverpool have a right-back behind him in Clyne.
The evolution of Mané’s game shows too, when you consider that his successful take-ons have dropped from 58% in his first season in England, down to 55% last year and 54 this. Beating full-backs for pace is still part of his game, but at Anfield, his creating and finishing is what’s noteworthy.
The fluidity of Liverpool’s play is beautiful, but it also serves a purpose. Mané has operated, effectively, at number 10 during games this season, Lallana others, and more commonly, it’s been Coutinho pulling the strings. Likewise, that “isolation” that Klopp talks about is more typical of someone like Theo Walcott or Dele Alli storming late into the box to finish a chance. The roles of the forwards subtly adapt depending on the situation within the game; just as the nearest player famously presses out of possession, each of the Anfield attack have become more rounded, complete players as a result of drifting in and out of different positions.
It’s a case of evolution for Mané and revolution for Liverpool. As the club have implemented Klopp’s style further into their template, Sadio has shown this season that he’s the best bits of a winger, forward and playmaker worthy of playing in the Champions League, combined with the speed and combativeness that Klopp demands from players higher up the pitch.
There have standout performers for Liverpool this season, individual masterclasses, and each of their attackers have stood at some point. Sadio Mané has shown though that he’s as important as anyone, if not the key to Liverpool’s success.