What makes a footballer world class? It is a term thrown around, often too loosely, to describe players who appear to be at the top of their game. People normally talk about goals and assists, clean sheets and saves. But for a player to be deemed world class, he should possess the ability to win games on his own, doing things on the pitch few others can and not shying away on the biggest stage, whilst most importantly, maintaining a high level of consistency (sorry Arsenal fans, that ends the debate on Mesut Ozil).
Is scoring 15 times in his last 20 club appearances a mark of a world class player?
No, it is just great form.
The only player to score in every round of the Champions League knockout stages last season, starting with a hat-trick in the last 16, before finding the back of the net in the quarter-final, semi-final and the final.
Okay, impressive, but maybe just a one-off.
The record-holder of the Premier League’s fastest ever hat-trick, finding the back of the net three times in a mere 176 seconds. In the time you take to read this article, this player scored three goals in a Premier League match.
Surely just a fluke, right?
The man currently sitting at the top of the Premier League top scorer’s chart.
Hold your horses, we’re only four games in!
These facts and figures are not necessarily all the hallmarks of a world class player. That is why Sadio Mane usually goes under the radar. If you were to name the top ten players in the Premier League, those who are in that much debated world class category, the likes of Salah, De Bruyne, Aguero and Kante would, quite understandably, be mentioned most frequently. But I seriously doubt that the Liverpool winger would feature in many top ten lists.
Mane’s goalscoring tally has reached double figures in each of his four previous seasons in the Premier League – a very impressive statistic for a winger who is still only 26-years-old, and a record he will surely improve to five out of five this campaign. In comparison, Eden Hazard has also scored ten or more in four Premier League seasons (whilst being Chelsea’s primary penalty taker), but he is now in his seventh year at Stamford Bridge. The Belgian is appropriately regarded as a world class player, yet Mane is not. Admittedly, there is much more to football than goal and assist statistics, a point which will be elaborated on further to highlight the underrated extent of Mane’s exceptional talent.
There are few better players to watch with the ball at their feet than Liverpool’s number 10. His blinding acceleration, paired with his dazzling trickery and tidy ball control allow him to fly past defenders with consummate ease. Mo Salah himself even admitted that his fellow African is the quickest player at the club.
An often unnoticed trait of Mane’s game is his intelligence off the ball. Just like his club colleague and the third member of European football’s deadliest trio, Roberto Firmino, Mane knows exactly when to press opposition defenders into making a mistake. If someone else forces an error, Mane is often the beneficiary to take advantage. His express pace enables him to catch up with the play and make himself available in the box. His goals against West Ham, Manchester City and Roma last season, and Crystal Palace a few weeks ago, are prime examples of Mane’s predatory instincts in capitalising on other teams’ mistakes. Of the Senegalese forward’s 62 goals in English football, 59 have been scored inside the area, showing his willingness and appetite to get himself into advanced goalscoring positions. Although he does have the propensity to score special goals, many of his strikes are not the most spectacular, but his knack of being in the right place at the right time is not uncanny; it demonstrates the importance of attacking intelligence and awareness in football.
Consistency and performing when it matters are the true indicators of a world class player. Sadio Mane can have the occasional bad game, as can Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. It is limiting these displays to a bare minimum that allows good players to become great ones. In 2018, not only has Mane eliminated the infrequent poor performance from his game, he has played so phenomenally well on such a consistent basis he has placed himself firmly inside the world class bracket. In previous years, he has produced some world class performances, but this year he has been at that level on such a regular basis, the debate is now heavily one-sided.
And what about performing on the biggest stage? The Champions League is the world’s premier club competition. 2017/18 was Mane’s debut season in the competition. Nobody has ever scored more in their first Champions League campaign. Not just the goals, but his all-round performances ended the ties as contests in the last 16 and quarter-final, with Liverpool taking unassailable first leg leads, before scoring a crucial away goal at Roma in the semis. Although his strike in the final was ultimately in vain, it was yet more proof of a player that does not back down against superior opposition in the most critical situations.
Sadio Mane is more than just a goalscorer, a speedster or a creator. He is the man for the big occasion and who this season, will end any discussion regarding his status as a world class footballer.