The Liverpool forward has looked in fine form in pre-season, and he looks ready to start the new campaign in the best possible manner
Sadio Mane was troubled. He wasn’t alone.
As the grim trudge that was last season was beginning to draw to a close, the Liverpool forward could not wait for the finish line.
It had been a campaign of empty stadiums, and for Liverpool one of full treatment tables.
The Reds were struggling, and Mane was forced to assess what he’d been doing wrong.
“This is the worst season of my career. I have to admit it,” he told French TV station Canal+ in mid-May, shortly after he’d just scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win over Southampton, just his third Premier League strike in 2021.
“If you ask me what is wrong I will struggle to give you an answer. Personally, I don’t know.
“I have always tried to be positive, whether things are going well or badly. I question myself all the time.
“I even underwent a test to take a look at my body. Am I eating the right foods, or has everything changed? But they checked the test results, and everything is fine.
“I need to understand that in life there are ups and downs. I will keep on working hard – and perhaps in time this situation will pass.”
Mane was named on the bench for the 4-2 win at Manchester United which followed, coming on late in the game before visibly looking annoyed with Jurgen Klopp as the Reds boss bounded onto the Old Trafford pitch to celebrate with his players.
It was a big victory for Liverpool, and one that strengthened their grip on a top four place, but Mane struggled to enjoy it.
He was struggling to enjoy anything on the pitch.
“Football without fans, I think it’s not football,” Mane tells Liverpool’s website on the eve of the new season, one which he is going into hoping that the fact his side are facing Norwich in their first game can be seen as something of a good omen.
“I think the really good thing about it is the coincidence because the season we won the league our opening game was against Norwich and we won 4-1,” he added.
Back then Mane was back on the bench, emerging as a late substitute having only recently returned from a hectic summer that started with Liverpool winning the Champions League and ended with him taking Senegal to the African Cup of Nations final.
He was memorably asked back then if he was at risk of burnout, replying that he didn’t believe in such a thing. “Tiredness is in head,” he said.
Now he sees things differently.
“I still remember that I had 10 days of holidays [in summer 2019, before the Norwich game], but this season is a little bit different because I have had enough holidays.
“So hopefully it’s going to be an exciting season for me and Liverpool Football Club.
“I think it’s always important as a player to have rest and I think in this last summer everybody has enough rest, especially myself.
“I said it was my first [extended break] since I came to Liverpool and that is the truth. The pre-season went well and I think everybody is physically ready and we are just looking forward to the season.”
Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
That reflection and the understanding that, no matter how good he is, he is not invincible, is perhaps what had popped into Mane’s head during that May period of introspection.
His pause for thought eventually bore fruit when he scored twice on the final day of the season against Crystal Palace to secure Liverpool’s place in the top four – a third place finish despite all their issues.
Mane had been helped that day by the presence of 10,000 fans inside Anfield, finally a decent audience before whom he could strut his stuff. The stage had never been empty, but the point of the performance had been in question.
The return of fans and Mane’s lengthy rest are two pretty strong reasons to expect that the Senegalese is set to have a good campaign, with his form in pre-season adding to that expectation.
A relaxation over VAR’s studying of offsides to a microscopic detail is also good news for him, as the forward would be the Liverpool player who fell foul of the officials most.
So he’s rested, well-adjusted, in form and ready to punish defences.
Mane’s “worst” season could end up giving way to his best one.