Sadio Mane at 30: the transfer gamble that kick-started Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dynasty


When Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp announced the £36million signing of Sadio Mane from Southampton in June 2016, eyebrows were raised.

“I think we’ve paid far too much for him,” said club legend Phil Thompson – and he wasn’t the only critic to question the fee. After all, the Senegal international’s move came 12 months before Neymar’s £200m switch to Paris Saint-Germain inflated the transfer market.

Mane became Liverpool’s most expensive player – taking the honour from Andy Carroll – and was expected to improve on his 11-goal Premier League tally from the previous season. He wouldn’t let them down – becoming the signing that kick-started Klopp’s Anfield dynasty.

Mane was born in the village of Bambali in Senegal on April 10, 1992. He was undoubtedly the finest footballer in his community, yet his family weren’t keen the idea of him becoming a professional footballer – wanting him to focus on his education instead.

The teenager defied his family, fleeing to Dakar – the capital of Senegal. He was quickly tracked down by his loved ones and agreed to return to the village on the condition he could move to Dakar in 12 months’ time to pursue his dream.

“They respected my decision,” recalled Mane. “After the end of the school year, they decided to find a place for me to play because I said, ‘It’s over now. Now it’s football.'”

Soon after calling Dakar his home, Mane joined local side Generation Foot’s academy and, six months later, he was spotted by French side Metz. It was the 19-year-old’s chance to play in Europe – starting his journey to the top.

Mane’s time at Metz was far from easy. He scored just twice in 23 appearances for the Ligue 2 outfit between 2011 and 2012, suffering relegation to the third tier of French football after a series of frustrating injuries hampered his progress.

Despite this, he did enough to impress. Mane received his Senegal debut in 2012 – scoring in his second game – and was part of their squad for the Olympics in London. Ralf Rangnick, then Red Bull’s head of football, spotted his talent and spent €4m – around £3.3m – to bring him to Red Bull Salzburg. It was the biggest transfer fee Metz had ever received.

The investment turned out to be an outstanding bit of business. Mane went on to score 42 goals in all competitions during his first two seasons in Austria, helping the Red Bull side win a league and cup double in 2013-14. His prolific form caught the attention of Southampton, who were looking for a new talisman after selling Adam Lallana to Liverpool.

Mane, an unknown quantity in England, was selected as the man to fill Lallana’s boots and completed a £10m move in September 2014. “It is incredible how many goals he has scored from his position, and I hope that he will do the same for us,” said then Saints boss Ronald Koeman.

The 25-year-old’s impact wasn’t instant, but he was regarded as one of Southampton’s best players by the end of his first season at St Mary’s. His hat-trick against Aston Villa in May 2015 will live long in the memory – completing the feat in just two minutes and 56 seconds.

Mane’s form remained solid the following term, persuading Klopp to invest. “Since I came here I have spoken to the staff a lot about him and have always felt he could be a very good signing,” said the German. Few knew it – but Liverpool had just found a bargain.

Although Liverpool’s decision to spend £36m on Mane was questioned at the time, no one was arguing with Klopp and his colleagues at the end of 2016-17 campaign. The forward was named the club’s Player of the Year and earned a spot in the PFA Team of the Year, as the Reds qualified for the Champions League.

Liverpool’s return to Europe’s biggest competition – as well as the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142m in January 2018 – helped them attract and afford several top players. The likes of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho followed, helping Klopp’s side win the Premier League, Champions League, EFL Cup, Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup in the years following their arrivals.

Yet it was Mane’s talismanic display in 2016-17 that got Liverpool into a position to sign these top players. And his performances since that term can’t be forgotten. The Senegalese ace won the Premier League’s Golden Boot in 2018-19, which he shared with Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and was named the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year in 2019-20. He was also named African Footballer of the Year in 2019.

Mane has also been brilliant for Senegal, leading his nation to glory in the Africa Cup of Nations in February – their first major title – and World Cup qualification. No matter what he does or doesn’t achieve in the future, his status as a Senegalese icon is confirmed.

And so is his Anfield legacy. As Jurgen Klopp said in July 2020: “Maybe people thought, ‘I am not sure he is worth it [£36m]’ – but we were 100 per cent sure about him… the level he performs at is unbelievable. He helps us massively.

“He is a complete player, offensively and defensively he works hard, he is really quick… we were lucky enough to be around while that [progression] happened, becoming a very good player to a world-class player, no doubt about that, and he is a winner on top of that.”

Few have achieved more in the modern game than Mane and, at 30, it still feels as if there’s much more to come. A historic quadruple this season, perhaps? He’s got the Kop dreaming.