Bayern Munich’s £35 million ($45m) capture of Sadio Mane was initially seen as one of the bargain deals of the 2022 summer transfer window, as the forward rejected a contract extension at Liverpool to take on a new challenge at the Allianz Arena.
Mane earned a place among Europe’s elite attackers during his six-year stint at Anfield, scoring 120 goals in 269 games, becoming a Premier League and Champions League winner in the process. Bayern, then, hoped that the Reds talisman would help fill the void left by Robert Lewandowski, who completed a long-anticipated move to Barcelona shortly after Mane’s arrival in Germany.
The early signs were positive, with five goals netted in his first six appearances after slotting straight into Julian Nagelsmann’s starting XI. However, the goals quickly dried up for Mane, and he faced plenty of criticism after a poor display in the club’s 2-0 Champions League group-stage victory over Barcelona. He was substituted 70 minutes into the game after failing to muster a single shot, with Nagelsmann left frustrated.
“I would like him to do certain things more,” said the coach. “Maybe less looking for the ball or team-mates, and trying to be a bit more self-confident.”
By the end of the campaign, it was clear Mane had become a shadow of the player he was at Liverpool. The 31-year-old has also been accused of being a disruptive influence behind the scenes, and his future at Bayern has been thrown into serious doubt amid reported interest from Saudi Arabia…
Nagelsmann was ruthlessly sacked by Bayern after a 2-1 Bundesliga defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on March 19, which allowed Borussia Dortmund to leapfrog them at the top of the table.
At the time, Bayern were still in the hunt for a treble, but they no longer had faith in Nagelsmann to finish the job, and former Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel was drafted in as his replacement.
In the days that followed, it was widely reported that Nagelsmann had lost the dressing room, with Mane and Leroy Sane among those that had wanted him gone.
According to BILD, Mane was also involved in a furious row with the German manager after Bayern’s victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie, as he complained about being restricted to a substitute role.
Mane was given a clean slate under Tuchel, who backed him to silence his critics upon his arrival in Bavaria. “Even at his age, it always takes time to acclimate after a change of clubs,” he said. “That can take time. There’s no doubt about his quality and what it can bring us.”
Bayern went on to exit the DFB-Pokal and stood on the brink of Champions League elimination after a 3-0 first-leg loss to Manchester City in the quarter-finals. Mane was unable to make any meaningful impact after coming on for the final 20 minutes, and was seen arguing with Sane in the last knockings of the game.
It was widely reported that the altercation escalated in the away changing room, with Mane said to have punched Sane in the face before they were pulled apart.
Sane was left with marks on his lip after the brawl, and Mane was separated from the group as Bayern officials sought to calm the situation.
Bayern punished Mane with a one-match suspension and a fine for his actions, and genuine concerns were raised over his temper. Mane finally broke his silence on the incident in June, telling Senegalese television station 2sTV: “Something like that can happen. It happened. We were able to solve this small problem. Sometimes it’s good to solve problems, but maybe not in this way. That’s behind us now.”
However, Mane may not get the chance to win back the trust of his team-mates next season.
World Cup heartbreak
Bad luck also played its part in Mane’s frustrating first year at Bayern.
He was forced off through injury in the club’s 6-1 win over Werder Bremen on November 8, and subsequently underwent surgery to re-attach the head of his right fibula.
Secretary General of FIFA and former Senegalese diplomat, Fatma Samoura, summed up the mood of an entire nation after the news, telling Europe 1: “We are going to use witch doctors. I don’t know (if they’re effective) but in this instance, we’re going to use them anyway. We are hoping for miracles. He has to be there!”
Mane was still initially named in Senegal’s final squad for the 2022 World Cup after the injury blow, but Bayern confirmed his withdrawal after the operation.
The Lions of Teranga made it through the group stage for the first time since 2002 in Mane’s absence, but ultimately bowed out after a 3-0 loss to England in the last 16, with the winger forced to watch on while working on his recovery at Bayern.
After three months out, Mane finally made his return to action off the bench in a 3-0 victory against Union Berlin at the end of February, but found it difficult to get back up to speed. The former Liverpool star only started five of Bayern’s final 12 Bundesliga games, scoring once.
Bayern ended up pipping Dortmund to the title on the final day of the season, but Mane was an unused substitute as Tuchel’s side secured a dramatic 2-1 win against Koln. He may have added another winner’s medal to his impressive CV, but his stock had dropped lower than ever before.
Struggles through the middle
Mane was primarily deployed on the left of a devastatingly effective front three at Liverpool alongside Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, but Jurgen Klopp did also use him as a No.9 at times, with impressive results.
Mane’s pace and agility made him a nightmare for defenders in one-on-one positions, and he was often extremely clinical in front of goal due to his ability to finish with either foot.
Nagelsmann certainly felt his talents were best suited to a role through the middle, but Mane was unable to sustain his encouraging early output at Bayern.
His loss of form prompted former Liverpool and Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamann to question whether he felt settled in Munich back in September.
“He is not integrated,” Hamann told German magazine GMX. “He is at his best when he comes from the outside. He doesn’t look happy to me. Nobody is talking about Mane at the moment. He seems isolated and hardly takes part in the game.”
Pressed on where he feels most comfortable on the pitch, Mane said the following month: “My position? I’ve played left winger my whole life. If the team needs me as a striker or right winger, I’ll be there.”
Thomas Muller and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting led the line while Mane was injured, and Serge Gnabry has been operating as a false nine since Tuchel’s arrival at the Allianz.
It seems unlikely, then, that Mane will get a look in upfront again anytime soon. He remains a winger by trade, that’s where he did the most damage for Liverpool, but it remains to be seen whether he can rediscover his very best form – and if Bayern give him the platform.
Wear & tear from Liverpool
Liverpool put in a quite remarkable effort in 2022-23, participating in every possible match in all competitions while chasing down an unprecedented quadruple.
Mane featured in 51 of their 63 games, contributing 23 goals and five assists, with Jurgen Klopp’s men ultimately finishing up with an FA Cup and Carabao Cup double after falling agonisingly short in the Premier League title race and Champions League final.
The Reds’ thin squad was pushed to its limit, and they suffered a considerable hangover last season as a result.
The likes of Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and even Salah – who to his credit, still managed to score over 20 goals – all underperformed, ensuring that Liverpool slipped to fifth in the Premier League and out of the Champions League.
Even if Mane had stayed, it is highly unlikely that they would have avoided such a decline, as the Senegal frontman had also been left feeling the physical effects of an exhausting campaign himself.
“He’s a machine. But at the moment, like most players in Liverpool, he’s suffering from a piston attack. I think he’s just worn out,” Hamann told Sky Germany in April.
That could also explain why it took Mane so long to recover from his surgery, and why he is now seemingly more prone to uncharacteristic emotional outbursts.
Mane needed a long summer break to refresh and re-energise, while also assessing what he wants to achieve as he edges toward the latter stages of his career. And the time has now come for him to make a crucial decision.
According to Sport 1, Bayern officials were not satisfied with Mane’s debut season. They expected more from a player with so much experience at the highest level, and his application in training was also called into question.
The report stated that Mane was deemed to have lost some of the ‘explosiveness’ that made him so dangerous at Liverpool. It’s clear to see that his work rate hasn’t dwindled, but his effectiveness on the ball certainly has.
“He’s still in search of himself a little,” former Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn said before his sacking at the end of May. “He’s a player that needs a lot of encouragement. He’s not used to the type of competition for places we have here. It wasn’t like that at Liverpool.”
Mane still has a contract with Bayern until 2025, but it has been reported that the club will sanction his departure in the current transfer window if they receive a suitable offer. And Tuchel effectively confirmed that Mane does not figure into his plans in his first pre-season press conference last week.
“Basically, he had an unsatisfactory season and fell short of expectations,” said the Bayern boss. “The competition is very high in the position where I see him at his strongest, with Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry.”
Newcastle have been tipped to try and bring Mane back to the Premier League, but the Middle East appears to be his most likely next destination. According to The Athletic, Mane is in talks to join former Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr.
The Saudi outfit have already added Marcelo Brozovic, Seko Fofana and Alex Telles to their ranks this summer, with Ronaldo’s initial arrival in January paving the way for an influx of big-name European players to the Gulf state. Mane would certainly add even more quality to Al-Nassr’s ranks as they target Pro League glory in 2023-24.
But it’s a sad state of affairs for Mane, who shouldn’t really be joining what essentially amounts to a retirement league at his age. His fall from grace has been unprecedented, given how much respect and admiration he commanded from across the football world during his time at Liverpool.
A year ago, Mane could have slotted into the starting XI of any elite club, but now he has no choice but to seriously consider leaving Europe. Bayern will have to concede that Mane was one of their worst pieces of business of the modern era if he does leave, and they’re willing to accept that reality.
The Mane that thrilled audiences across the Premier League for six years at Anfield is now gone forever. And he’d be wise to accept a lucrative payday in Saudi Arabia instead of hopelessly trying to recapture his old self at a club that no longer believes in his ability.