With the 30-man shortlist revealed today, Sadio Mané is among the outsiders to be named the world’s best player this calendar year. It takes one to know one, they say, so perhaps it made sense that Lionel Messi gave Sadio Mané his first vote for the FIFA World Player of the Year award last month. The Argentine eventually came out top, but if he plans to win the Ballon d’Or as well, he might want to hand his next vote to a less threatening rival. Mané came fifth for the same award, but perhaps he should have been higher. Since the start of the year he has won the Champions League, helped Liverpool to a 97-point league finish and guided Senegal to the Africa Cup of Nations final, which his country lost 1-0 to Algeria despite leading the shot count 12-1. Arsène Wenger believes Mané should win the award. The stats reflect a superb year for Mané so far. He takes few shots but lets rip from excellent positions. His open-play expected assists rate (xA) stands at 0.15 per 90 minutes. His number of pressure regains is solid and on the rise: this season Mané has been the forward with the sixth most pressure regains per 90 in the league (4.01). Though Mané is a winger, the raids of Andrew Robertson down the left let him move into the box like a striker. Not only does Mané take up positions like a poacher, he finishes like one too. Along with the achievements of his two teams, do these stats give Mané a shout for the Ballon d’Or? Let’s compare him with the other candidates. Those who came ahead of him for the FIFA award were Messi, Virgil van Dijk, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah. But a couple of the players who came just behind Mané might pose a threat too.
A cluster of three players got just a few votes fewer than Mané. One was Frenkie de Jong, but considering Mané won the Champions League, the Dutch playmaker should have a hard time getting ahead of him. Another was Eden Hazard, yet as good as he was in the Premier League last season, Mané has done more in the cups, and a thigh injury has married the Belgian’s start to life in Spain. The third is Kylian Mbappé, and here Mané can only beat him on his Africa Cup of Nations displays, the stronger reputation of the Premier League and Paris Saint-Germain’s debacle in the Champions League. As a striker, it doesn’t get much better than this. Yet collective trophies matter, and so Mané will most likely face a bigger challenge from his two teammates as well as Messi and Cristiano. Let’s begin with fourth place.
Just ahead of Mané came Salah, with three votes more. That denotes a close race, yet the stats say Mané should prevail. Whereas Salah takes more shots, Mané selects his attempts better and has a higher expected goals rate (xG) per 90. Most of the other key metrics favour Mané as well: his passing is more accurate, his xA from open play is higher, he loses the ball less often and he presses more efficiently. After Salah there’s a big gap up to the top three. Third is Cristiano, and again you can make the argument that Mané has been better. Like Salah, Cristiano beats him on shot volume, but Mané comes out top for expected goal involvements and work rate. (You could argue that Cristiano plays more as a striker, though his radar for that position does him no favours here.) It is also worth highlighting their finishing. Whereas Mané has scored 19 non-penalty goals from an xG of 11.83, Cristiano has nine non-penalty goals from a slightly lower xG. Cristiano won the UEFA Nations League, but Mané became European club champion. Throw in the Africa Cup of Nations and Mané has a strong case. All of which leads us to second place. Here we find Van Dijk, which hands us a tricky comparison between a winger and a centre back. The Dutchman might have the upper hand: he won the UEFA Player of the Year award in late August and, looking at his stats, it is hard to say what more he could have done. Then comes the king, Messi, who won the FIFA award by a clear margin. Mané has a better shot selection, works harder and loses the ball less often. Beyond that, it’s not really a contest. But wait. Did Mané not outperform Messi in the Champions League? We remember that Messi supposedly played badly when Barcelona lost 4-0 at Anfield. Do the stats reflect this? Well… no.
The forgotten one
And so while Messi remains Messi, Mané does compare favourably to most of the candidates for the Ballon d’Or. But have we not forgotten someone? When the shortlist for the FIFA award came out, Pep Guardiola said he thought no player had had a better season than Bernardo Silva. Yet another City player who got little mention was Raheem Sterling. He was not among the 10 nominees for the award, a call that can only have been based on City’s travails in the Champions League. Compared to Mané, Sterling has been better since the start of the year. One can only hope Sterling gets more recognition when the Ballon d’Or voting gets underway. Whether he’ll beat Mané is doubtful, however, given the weight the biggest cup titles carry. Mané has been Liverpool’s best attacker this year and, while he’s unlikely to win the Ballon d’Or, a spot among the top three would be well deserved. Header image courtesy of the Press Association