Roberto Firmino’s tunnel reaction to angry Sadio Mane showed truth about Liverpool
If there is one thing Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team have been renowned for, it is their unity, togetherness and team spirit.
There have been numerous examples of it on and off the field and is one of the aspects Liverpudlians have enjoyed most during the rise to top of the European and domestic game under Jurgen Klopp.
Operating as they do under big pressure at the elite level of the game, there are of course stresses and tensions which have to be managed especially with strong characters and personalities who are very driven and motivated to be successful.
There are high standards to be achieved and maintained with the coaching staff and the players clearly having high expectations of themselves and each other.
That’s the way it has to be, they wouldn’t and couldn’t be operating at the level they do without it.
Inevitably there will be always be moments when that bubbles over and leads to disagreement and conflict, which is the case is pretty much any workplace, and many have spoken of how the lack of any ‘super egos’ in the Liverpool squad means by and large everyone is usually on the same page.
But there was one incident earlier on in Klopp’s reign which provided an intriguing snapshot into such dynamics within the Liverpool squad and how they are managed.
It was in August 2019 when the Reds travelled to Turf Moor to take on Burnley in only their only fourth Premier League fixture of the campaign.
In truth, it was one of the more comfortable victories of Liverpool’s season – particularly in light of previous struggles the Reds had had in east Lancashire – with two goals in four minutes shortly after the hour mark, the first an own goal from Chris Wood who deflected a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross into his own net followed shortly afterwards by a calm Sadio Mane slot after fine set-up play by Roberto Firmino, putting Klopp’s men firmly in command.
The expected second half onslaught from the home side never really materialised and when Firmino fired home from the edge of the box with ten minutes it seemed like the final act in a textbook away win.
The 3,000 or so away supporters in the David Fishwick stand at the other end of the ground enjoying the late summer sunshine would have initially paid scant attention to a chance to increase the lead shortly afterwards to 4-0 which Mo Salah spurned, nor the substitution moments later which saw Divock Origi replace Sadio Mane.
And few, if any, of the travelling Reds would have spotted Mane’s incensed reaction on the Liverpool bench after he came off.
The chance Salah spurned shortly after Firmino’s goal saw the Egyptian go shoot himself when he could have slipped the ball to the unmarked Mane alongside him and, despite the three points long being secured and the Senegalese striker having already got his name on the scoresheet that day, he was briefly incandescent at his fellow African and had to be restrained by his slightly bemused team-mates on the bench.
Of course, the incident was used for months afterwards by the uninformed and those with an axe to grind against Liverpool as ‘evidence’ that there was discord behind the scenes at Anfield when in reality it was the proverbial storm in a teacup, in reality providing proof of the inexorable will to win that exists in a squad where standards are set so high even late in a game which had already been won convincingly.
Mane himself said in November 2019 when asked about the incident: “I was frustrated a bit too much. I said it to him on the pitch, and protested when I was taken off because I was so frustrated.
“It’s the first time we had a little tiff like that. Even him, he was surprised after the match. He said to me ‘Sadio! Why are you being like this?’ I said ‘Because I’m so frustrated!’ After we made sure to talk to clear the air.
“But it remains a great pleasure to play besides him because I have the feeling we speak the same type of football.”
And Salah shed more light on the incident, telling Egyptian broadcaster MBC Masr TV that the two enjoy a professional relationship.
“We are team-mates on the pitch and in the dressing room, we have a very professional relationship. We both give everything we have to help the team win.
“Maybe we’re competing to show who is the best, and this is normal in any team and a legitimate right for any player, but in the end, we serve the team.
“Sometimes we’re selfish in some plays, but no one puts their interest above the team. It’s not intentional, whether from me or him, perhaps there was some tension in a previous match and now everyone tries to associate everything with it.
“It was in a match (referring to the Burnley match) where Sadio left the pitch angry. This was the first time people talked about this matter and linked every ball that I didn’t pass to him or he didn’t pass it to me to this situation.
“But Sadio assisted my goal two games ago and I assist him as well.”
The Mane-Salah ‘flare up’ provided a bit of spice, for the national media anyway, to an otherwise routine and almost mundane early season win for the Reds but there was a final postscript which in reality gave a more accurate insight into the mood within the Liverpool squad.
After the game, the tv cameras within the Turf Moor tunnel showed the players returning to the dressing rooms with the two supposedly warring factions of Salah and Mane making their way up the steps, with Roberto Firmino in between them.
Salah had his head down and Firmino, spotting the tv camera as he approached, blew his cheeks out, slightly slowed his stride and widened his eyes with looking at the camera with a big ‘well this is awkward’ smirk on his face.
It was hilarious and diffused the so-called flashpoint in terms of the public eye but also gave an illustration into the mentality running through Klopp’s squad.
There always has, and no doubt always will be, tremendous pressure on the shoulders of everyone who represents Liverpool Football Club.
The club’s unparalleled history and the expectation levels of the fanbase, let alone the media, mean that is something everyone who pulls on that blood red shirt must deal with.
The bar set by Manchester City in recent years has cranked up the intensity and level of performance required and yet Liverpool have managed to rise to the challenge and, having won the Champions League, went one better in 2020 and finally lifted the Premier League title they have longed for.
And perhaps one of the reasons they have been able to do that is the slightly irreverent and human approach Klopp has allowed to germinate within his squad, the knowledge that football – as fundamental as it is to all the lives of managers, players and supporters – is the most important ‘unimportant’ thing in the world.
Yes, they are expected to work hard under pressure and deliver results and, as Mamadou Sakho among others would vouch for, there can be ruthlessness if certain boundaries are crossed and standards are not kept to.
But there is also an understanding that players are human beings with different personalities and, at times, different failings and Firmino’s amusing Turf Moor reaction was proof positive that none of them take themselves – or each other – too seriously.
Mane now finds himself in hot water in Germany after allegedly aiming a punch at team-mate – and former Man City man – Leroy Sane in the aftermath of their defeat to the Citizens in the Champions League.
The former Liverpool man’s frustration boiled over after an on-pitch exchange and he now faces severe punishments after allowing himself to see the red mist.
That such an incident never happened at Liverpool during what was a high-pressure partnership with Salah speaks volumes about the mentality Klopp fostered in his squad.
That’s why they have been able to roll with the punches during the various setbacks they have had during the rollercoaster ride which has been the Jurgen Klopp era at Anfield.
A version of this article was first published in 2020.
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