Sadio Mane will head to Saudi Arabia after a dismal year at Bayern Munich (Getty Images)
Sadio Mane was maybe only inches from the Ballon d’Or; the inside of the Paris post, which his shot struck in the Champions League final; the fingertips of Thibaut Courtois, tipping a goalbound effort on to the woodwork. Inches from immortality, perhaps, from being only the second African to become officially the best player in the world. And if it is not certain he would have topped the poll, the eventual runaway winner Karim Benzema was propelled to pre-eminence by Champions League glory in a year when the poll took place before the World Cup.
As it was, Mane was named the second-finest player on the planet in 2022. He finished the 2022-23 campaign as perhaps 16th in line at Bayern Munich: 15 others took the field in the win at Koln that clinched the Bundesliga, with the teenager Mathys Tel and veteran Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting summoned from the bench while Mane remained an unused substitute. He had been the fifth substitute used the previous week, sent on with four minutes to go in defeat to RB Leipzig.
The decline of Mane has been a swift, undignified and unexpected affair. A lucrative one, too, given that Bayern are paying him far more than Liverpool did and Al Nassr will in turn pay him rather more again, after he joined the migration to Saudi Arabia. Mane represents one of the Pro League’s flagship signings, but is an arrival with a difference: like many others, he is in his thirties, but whereas Benzema is 35 and could argue his ambitions were realised with Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo is now 38, albeit stung by the recognition the European elite did not want him when he left Manchester United, the Senegalese is only 31. So, if only for another couple of months, is Roberto Firmino, but Mane’s old sidekick’s race had appeared run. He, on the other hand, was seemingly at his peak.
This, it is safe to say, is not what Mane had planned when he teased his audience ahead of the Champions League final, saying he would reveal his future after it, and when, after emerging from Mohamed Salah’s shadow to become the brightest star at Anfield, he declared he “would be the most happy player in the world” to win the Ballon d’Or.
Klopp can be loyal to players who have served him well and few were as influential as the catalytic Mane. There was no hint of gloating about a decision to leave that backfired, but nor was there a pretence Mane has prospered in Bavaria. “I don’t know what went wrong,” the Liverpool manager said on Tuesday. “When Sadio left us he left on a high in really good shape: world-class player, no shadow of a doubt. To fulfil your full potential everything has to fall in place, you need a bit of luck and that wasn’t the case.”
Mane’s spell at Bayern Munich has been largely unsuccessful (Getty Images)
Certainly there was misfortune as injury ruled Mane out of the World Cup. His old manager nevertheless could have pointed out that most of the great Klopp players are only great Klopp players: there are notable exceptions, such as Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan, but they are outnumbered by those who never scaled such heights elsewhere or under anyone else. That category now includes Mane.
“Basically, Sadio had an unsatisfactory season and fell short of expectations,” Thomas Tuchel said last month. “The player knows my opinion and the opinion of the club.”
Tuchel sounded more forgiving before Bayern face Liverpool in Singapore, a reunion without Mane after he has left both clubs in successive summers. “I totally understand that he feels hurt,” he said. “I also don’t feel happy. We didn’t bring it to the full potential which is my responsibility.”
Mane suffered after Tuchel’s appointment, starting just four times, scoring just once and being suspended by the club for punching Leroy Sane after the defeat to Manchester City. Regime change worked against him, but his tally of goals for the sacked Julian Nagelsmann – 11 – was also underwhelming.
The Tuchel-Mane combination didn’t work at Bayern (REUTERS)
As Klopp hinted, circumstances can play a part. Mane could flourish in a system without a conventional striker at Liverpool, with Firmino usually the false nine before the Senegalese finished his Anfield career in that role. But Bayern, where a No 9 has traditionally been a pillar of the team, the experiment of replacing Lewandowski with a more fluid forward line failed: hoping some combination of Mane, Sane, Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller and Jamal Musiala could dovetail slickly instead made Choupo-Moting more important than ever before and led to a summer pursuit of Harry Kane.
Bayern is a club with its own dynamics, with entrenched power bases in the dressing room, a club with stars and yet one who did not buy those of Mane’s stature. Not since Arjen Robben 13 years earlier had they bought such a major attacker who was neither German nor recruited from the Bundesliga. If Mane was the outsider, he has headed out after a lone, increasingly ignominious year. And the 193 votes Mane received in the Ballon d’Or for 2022 are likely to be 193 more than he gets for 2023.