Match report from Liverpool decimation of Watford, where Sadio Mane laid down an exhibition on how to lead the forward line.
The humble Mudskipper
The West African Mudskipper has made its presence known. By nature, it’s an errant trespasser. And true to its nature it finds itself in places where it is not supposed to be – in a Senegalese rice paddy field, and/or in the unsuspecting mind of a reader of a football match report.
Now, you, a young farmer, knee deep in slush, praising your luck in French may widen your stance, corner the fish, assume hunter position and be prepared to lunge. But, but, but, chances are, what happened to the Watford defenders last night at Anfield, happens to you: Performing a salmon jump, rising higher than those much vertically far-reaching, the amphibian-fish may leave you perpendicular, like an L.
“It was my first time since I came to Liverpool that I played centrally,” acknowledged a 5’9’’ Sadio. “It’s one of the most adventurous goals I’ve scored, yes!”
Flapping the ball with his left flipper, away from two Watford defenders upon receiving the ball from Salah on the edge of the penalty area, Sadio felt his way out of entrapment into open waters. The ball was passed back to the much-derided James Milner, who aided the ball to the wand masquerading as the right leg of Trent Alexander Arnold, who angled in a cross much in the shape of how a fishing rod arches upon deployment. Flanked by Adrian Mariappa and the 6’2’’ Craig Cathcart, Mane had no right to be there at the penalty spot, nevermind heading that ball into the top right corner. Much like how the humble mudskipper has no right to be skipping over rocks and climbing trees (but does).
Jurgen Klopp had this to say: “I loved the first goal. The first goal was beautiful too, eh? Sadio jumping that high?! It was clear that he would be helpless in all the build-up situation playing that position, but he showed his quality. We needed him in the box and his positioning was really good. Also, remember when Mo (Salah) came through down the right side and hit the post, and Sadio was close to getting his third?”
The stills and photographs of this spectacular agility belied a regular clumsiness. Liverpool fans will be the first ones to admit that Sadio Mane, when left on his own on the left, has all the erratic coordination with the ball as that of an amateur roller-skating human tarantula, or a giraffe, or maybe a hyperextended gazelle with stilts (which when you think about it, is what giraffes technically are). Yet, he’s never, ever, ever too hard on himself when he botches up. A Bobby-Firmino-grade photovoltaic smile follows every folly, as if the inside-forward is in on an inside joke.
Marco Van Basten’s torch carrier for AC Milan, George Weah, was the precursor of the modern multi-functional wing-forward. Weah was third in the holy trident of (the original) Ronaldo (the steamroller), and Romario (the irreverent poacher) in a new breed of canny football carnivores. His game was characterised by wildly varied, instinctive finishing, the ability to both slink into the channels, and lead the line. With a foot always on the accelerator, he always had a tendency to overrun the ball. Sound familiar?
Growing up, modeling his game on George Weah, Sadio dazzled crowds with his versatility at the 1000-capacity Stade Déni Biram Ndao, Dakar, Senegal. Like Weah, when Sadio led the line, he thrived – from Salzburg to Southampton.
Liverpool 5-0 result provided a wide-voiced, superbly cohesive, polyphonic choralising. The system requires a sociable overlapping of individual duties, and a polyrhythmic conversation between instruments. Football relies on a celebration of interaction between a great variety of patterns into play. The music scholar Alan Lomax, whose words I’ve italicised, found this concept of football’s improvised chaos in traditional jazz.
Ideally, in jazz as in football, according to anthropologist and folklorist Rogers D. Abrahams, each instrument’s identity remains separate and distinct, “even at the point at which all of them are playing together.” Fabinho with his silk-cut suit and cello, Trent with his trilby and reed, Mo with his rebab, Origi with his trumpet were essentially jamming–what, and the way they played, was an extension of themselves.
Alan Lomax traces the tradition of jazz back to West African competitive drum-singing. The interlocking and overlapping of a variety of voices and timbres are dictated by the master drummer. His role is to “dominate through his charm, playfulness and subtly compel the attentive response of singer-drummers joining him.” The master drummer introduces unexpected variations, even at the cost of altering the basic meter, and catching both the spectators, rivals, and fellow musicians off-guard–this is the act of syncopation.
Tottering against the backdrop of potential sonic chaos and tumble, the artist achieves his mastery. Sadio Mane’s poor first touch for the second goal almost took the ball too far away, but with tangy elasticity, he pulled it back from oblivion through otherworldly outrageousness. Twisting his body, back turned to goal, he slapped the ball down on the ground with the fag-end of his heel, and past a bewildered Ben Foster. This, like improvised jazz, was high art.
The master drummer is the purest example of the relationship of the collective and the individual in a competitive environment. What made the Liverpool performance most impressive was that unlike the heydays of soloists such as Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez, the individual performances of each of the 11 performers were clearly defined metrical lines.
Sitting on top of the table at the end of February, these lines plot the progression of Jurgen Klopp’s combination of Erlebnisfussball (experience football, where development is at the forefront) and Jagdfussball (hunting football).
One gets to spot similar, stark, vivid, metrical lines in West African visual traditions, blankets, Sadio Mane’s hair-do and, well, mudskippers.