When Raheem Sterling left Liverpool in the summer of 2015, he did not just leave behind disgusted fans, he also left behind a giant hole in the form of a pacy winger and a good goal scorer. Indeed, the then 20-year old had been the main reason why the Reds could finish sixth in 2014-15 despite the entire season feeling like a hangover from the heights of 2013-14. That Liverpool did not immediately fill the void, made sure his absence was felt even more once Klopp joined in October 2015, as the new manager could have used Sterling’s pace immensely.
Then the German continued the tradition of summer raid at St. Mary’s and brought in Sadio Mane, for slightly more than half of what Liverpool had made for Sterling. Most Reds fans were not over the moon because of this development but hoped that Mane would provide the required pace on the wings. In this era of supercharged transfers, few moves have under-promised and over-delivered like Mane’s, at least based on the first eleven league games.
Meanwhile, Sterling who wasn’t able to play his natural game under Pellegrini at Manchester City, got a new lease of life under Pep Guardiola, as the Spaniard gave special attention to his winger and has been rewarded with fine performances at the beginning of the season. So, given that both the original estranged superstar and his replacement at Liverpool are doing very well this season, it is a good opportunity to compare their performances this season and understand if Liverpool has gained or lost a lot in the bargain.
Position-wise, Mane’s average position in his ten games this season have been in the half-space channel on the right, just outside the box. This works with Mane’s role as he cuts inside and exchanges positions with Liverpool’s other front players while also allowing Lallana and Clyne the space to come forward.
Sterling on the other hand plays a different role in Guardiola’s advanced midfield. His average position (also over ten games) is spread across from right to centre to a bit on the left, just outside the box. His role is not of a traditional winger but of an AM who cuts inside and creates for the gifted strikers ahead of him. Guardiola has deployed him six times on the right, thrice on the left and once as a false-nine in the centre.
Both the players are pretty similar when it comes to scoring goals. Both have similar number of shots per 90 mins. But Mane’s shooting is more wayward, which is amusing as Mane shoots more from within the box than from outside. This positioning of shots is perhaps responsible for Mane’s six goals, compared to Sterling’s four. So overall, Sterling is more likely to shoot on target but Mane is more likely to score from his shots on target.
In terms of enabling others to attack and shoot, Mane seems to be slightly better. He has more shot assists (~5 more so far) and a higher cross success percentage (albeit fewer crosses). He also plays more through balls and more final third passes in general. Looking at all these numbers tells us that Mane is more versatile enabler, as you can expect that he will enable his team mates to shoot on goal from rare but accurate crosses, through balls to players in front of him, or byline pullbacks to those behind him. Sterling on the other hand seems to focus his creation effort on crosses, but is not very accurate there. This is even more intriguing considering that Aguero, like Firmino for Liverpool is not really a target man waiting for the crosses. He is more of a poacher but Sterling’s service seems to meant for target men.
Although the stats for touches, passes, and pass accuracy are very similar for both the players, Mane comes across as more active of the two. He has more touches, more passes, more tackles and more ball recoveries to his name than Sterling. He also loses possession and gets caught offside more often than Sterling, who also has better passing accuracy, better tackle success rate, and is able to beat opponents more often than the Senegalese. Both the players are obviously very mobile and active on the pitch but Mane seems to be putting in more actions in the same time, as compared to Sterling, and is losing out a tad bit on accuracy of those actions.
On the basis of this evidence, it does seem that Mane has adequately filled the Sterling-shaped void in the Liverpool lineup and that too at a fraction of the cost. Mane is a more versatile enabler in the final third but is very similar to Sterling as a goal threat. His overall game is more action-packed but less accurate than Sterling, and it is completely possible that it is what is being asked off him by Klopp. But given Mane’s impact on the Liverpool game, their fans should really be worried about his month-long absence in January.