It is a staggering statistic. Of wide forwards in the Premier League this season, only Trezeguet of Aston Villa and Chelsea’s Timo Werner have underperformed their expected goals (xG) more than Liverpool‘s Sadio Mane has this season.
The metric of xG basically looks at how many times a player should expect to score a goal in a specific scenario. And in short, Mane’s data says that in several situations, he had a great probability of scoring, but didn’t.
The Athletic took a deep dive into Mane’s goalscoring struggles after he produced a dire display in the Champions League quarter-final first-leg defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday night and looked into the numbers to understand his woes.
With Roberto Firmino the most criticised of Liverpool’s front three, Mane has gone slightly under the radar but he too has played well below his potential this season.
The 28-year-old has returned just seven Premier League goals from 27 games and only three in his past 23 having initially started the campaign strongly with four in his first four matches.
His return is well down on his 18 goals from 35 games last term as the Reds won the league, while he managed 22 in 36 in the 2018-19 season as Liverpool racked up 97 points but finished second to Manchester City.
Unless he scores four goals in his final eight top-flight matches – which would be more than he’s scored in the league since October 17 – then Mane’s goal return will be his worst in a league season for the Merseyside club since his £34million switch from Southampton in the summer of 2016.
Yet The Athletic’s analysis makes it clear that it is not a question of Mane no longer getting chances. Instead, it’s simply that his conversion rate is down. He’s not scoring opportunities as regularly as he used to.
His conversion rate has actually dropped significantly, from 23.4 per cent in the title-winning 2019-20 season to just 9.2 per cent this year. Overperforming his xG in the past two seasons (0.64 goals to 0.44 xG in 2018-19 and 0.59 goals to 0.45 xG in 2019-20), he’s now badly underperforming (0.28 goals from 0.43 xG).
There’s a similarity there with Werner, who has scored just five Premier League goals in his debut season at Chelsea when he would’ve been expected to net at least 11 from the positions he’s gotten himself into.
The German has been labelled a ‘flop’ but if he can rediscover some confidence in front of goal, the talent is there to be a regular enough goal-getter, just as he was last year when he netted 34 times for RB Leipzig.
That’s why Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said of Werner and Kai Havertz on Friday: “We will not lose faith and trust. Maybe Timo misses a bit of confidence in his finishing. There are no bigger concerns.”
The same is true with Mane – and the fix for Liverpool seems to be fairly simple. It might even be simpler than it is for Chelsea and Werner.
Werner actually regularly missed a good number of chances in Germany. He has never been as lethal as an Erling Haaland or Robert Lewandowski, but the sheer amount of times he got himself in behind defences and into goalscoring chances translated into his huge goalscoring return.
It will not be as easy for Chelsea to get Werner into the same positions as often as he did for Leipzig, given the difference in playing styles and the nature of defences the Blues come up against.
It is not feasible, in this particular Tuchel team, for Werner to score 28 league goals as he did last season. They do not create the same number of chances that would be necessary for him to do so given his conversion rate.
Demanding half that amount, particularly if he plays as a left-sided attacker rather than a centre-forward, might be more feasible, however. That is likely to be some of the thinking behind the pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s Haaland.
For Liverpool and Mane, the fact the player is continuing to get a similar volume of opportunities as he was in previous campaigns – with his xG of 0.43 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in the league – is a huge positive.
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There are a multitude of possible explanations that could explain why he hasn’t finished at the same rate as previous seasons. Physical and mental fatigue are the most likely answers.
And so if Diogo Jota can continue to continue to be a regular goalscorer next term, even if not at his current rate, and Liverpool can add another more effective attacker off the bench than Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri, that may be enough to get Mane going again.
A lengthy summer break will help, but having the option for extra rest next term – but also at the same time having greater competition for his starting spot – might allow Mane to focus and rediscover some ruthlessness in front of goal.
The African remains a world-class talent and has not dropped off too much in other areas of his game, so Liverpool need not press the panic button.
They still have a 15-20-goal-a-season forward in him if they can get him to regain some calm and composure in front of goal.
Being back at full strength, and the effect that will have on Klopp’s ability to rotate and offer ample rest and recuperation, as well as increased competition with another new forward, might do the trick. Klopp will hope so anyway.