The year is 2005. A marginally less baggy-faced Harry Redknapp is busy steering Southampton Football Club towards a miserable 12th placed finish in the Championship (with contributions from the always-odd combination of George Burley and Sir Clive Woodward). The goals are mostly coming from the combined talents of Dexter Blackstock, Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller – the attacking equivalent of bringing a rubber band to a space-laser fight.
Fast-forward 10 years and a great deal has changed (except Harry Redknapp’s droopy face and considerably droopier managerial wisdom). Most notably, this current Southampton team boasts a trio of attackers so electric they could scorch a hole through the reinforced steel of Sam Allardyce’s gravy dungeon.
Graziano Pellè is muscular, intelligent and tidy. Dušan Tadić could pass a ball through the cleft in a moth’s ball bag. And then there’s the darting, thrusting jewel in an already pretty shiny crown – Sadio Mané.
Mane happy returns
This season, Southampton’s 23-year-old forward has five goals in all competitions. In the Saints’ 3-0 win against Norwich he dominated the game, playing a pivotal role in all three goals. Against Chelsea he was mesmerising – switching flanks to further pull down the pants of the now-regularly debagged Branislav Ivanovic.
And these are fast becoming typical Mané performances. After his £10 million move to the club in 2014, Mané delivered a season of highs and not-quite-so-highs. There was the hat-trick against Aston Villa that took less time than it takes Alan Pardew to douse his nuts in Lynx Voodoo. But then there were underwhelming performances, occurring frequently enough to make Saints fans suspect Mané was closer to a career of aimless inconsistency that he ever would be to one of habitual brilliance.
Then, this summer there came a surprising bid for the forward from Manchester United. Louis van Gaal, it seemed, had come to the dual conclusion that a) his team was slower than a chewed bee and b) Pedro smells like wee and poo. Mané, to a chorus of raised eyebrows and barely concealed titters, was the answer.
Pelle brings out the best in his strike partner
Except, nine games in to a strong (ish) start for Ronald Koeman’s side, Mané looks like a player a Manchester United-sized club would be foolish to ignore.
It was thanks to Southampton’s admirable resilience that Mané stayed put. And it’s a credit to the player that, like Morgan Schneiderlin the season before him, the disappointment of the failed move has taken him forward, not back.
The aforementioned strike partners have played a substantial part too. From the left, Tadić uses the ball so elegantly he makes other players look like their feet are made of logs. And Pellè is clearly a player who brings the best out in Mané – three of the Italian’s five league goals have come from a Mané assist, a joint return only matched by Arsenal’s Ozil and Alexis, and Watford’s Deeney and Ighalo.
The balance across Southampton’s front three is a perfect living example of their ‘big picture’ recruitment policy – combining guile, force and dynamism. Manchester United’s own recruitment department – with a decidedly more toddler-with-an-Argos-catalogue approach – is already said to be preparing an increased bid for Mané.
Of course, as with all eye-catching explosions of form there is a very real chance than Mané could dissolve into a puddle of misplaced media fluff. And yet the stats do tell us that, for something as revealing as successful take-ons, only Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and Riyad Mahrez are ahead of Mané.
In that Redknapp season 10 years ago, Theo Walcott left Southampton to join Arsenal where he has become a genuine Champions League-level forward (we think). There’s a great chance for Mané to follow the same path. Which, let’s face it, is more than poor Dexter Blackstock ever had.