In the summer of 2016 there was one, fairly long name on the lips of Liverpool supporters.
The Reds had infamously tried and failed to sign the Armenian attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donestk back in 2013, but three years on – and with Jurgen Klopp, the man who took him to Borussia Dortmund, now at the Anfield helm – this was the perfect chance.
After all, Klopp carried the level of pulling power that his predecessor Brendan Rodgers simply didn’t have, no matter what the Northern Irishman tried to do.
“I spoke two or three times on the phone to Brendan Rodgers. He was saying he really wanted me and that I’d get to play with Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard,” Mkhitaryan would recount to the Mail Online in 2017.
“Half of me thought I had to go there, the other half was not so confident, that the gap to the Premier League might be too big for a skinny player from the Ukrainian League.
“Two weeks later, Jurgen Klopp broke off his holiday on an island next to Denmark to come and see me in Dortmund.”
And the deal was done.
Mkhitaryan would be a key player for Klopp in the next two seasons at Dortmund, and then for one more under Klopp’s successor Thomas Tuchel, and by 2016 he had become one of those players that the Bundesliga side always tend to have.
The one that everyone wants.
It was Klopp’s first summer at Anfield, and after falling short in the Europa League final to Sevilla due to some obvious failings surely he was going to try and bring in some of the players he had enjoyed success with in Germany? He simply had to.
There was the grizzled defender Neven Subotic, he could do a job.
The likes of Christian Pulisic, Julian Weigl, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Mario Gotze and, most exhaustingly, Marco Reus were all linked as well, but Mkhitaryan’s name had come to the fore. There was suddenly a real belief that Liverpool should be signing the Armenian and a general sense of incredulity about why they weren’t.
But such a thought process reckoned without one of Klopp’s core ideals about his style of managing.
Instead of working with players he has dealt with before, the Liverpool boss would much rather have players in his squad who have never been under his wing in the past. That way, he thinks, the scope for their development is much greater.
“If you have had players, you know more about them. You want to learn about other players. That’s how it is.
“I knew quite early that he was going this way (to United). There was absolutely no reason for me to jump in there. That isn’t how we work.
“We didn’t look for players we had already worked with. If you do that, you know their good, their bad and you wonder whether you will do it again.
“It’s not boring but you know everything about each other so how can you develop? Where is the next step? Where is the next push for development?
“We could have gone for a lot of players. But, first of all, you have to think: what do I need?”
What he needed was a player he knew just a little about, not a lot, one that he had previously considered working with and regretted the fact that he didn’t.
He had developed a reputation as a useful if streaky player, the type that you might see towards the end of Match of the Day and think he had something about him, but not really give much thought to.
Mane might have made Premier League history when he scored a hat-trick inside two minutes and 56 seconds for the Saints against Aston Villa in May 2015, but he had scored just two goals in the 12 games that had proceeded that afternoon at St Mary’s.
A year later he hit a treble in a 4-2 win over Manchester City which came in a burst of eight goals in eight games that had included a brace against Liverpool, prior to which he hadn’t scored in 16.
Klopp knew that he liked him though, having considered signing him for Dortmund back in 2014.
“I remember my first encounter with Sadio. It was in Dortmund,” Klopp said in a documentary about Mane released last year.
“There was a really young guy sitting there. His baseball cap was askew, the blond streak he still has today.
“He looked like a rapper just starting out. I thought: ‘I don’t have time for this’. Our team back then really wasn’t bad. I needed someone who could handle not being a starter at the very beginning, someone I could develop.
“I’d say I have a pretty good feeling for people, but was I wrong! I further followed his career and continued success at Salzburg. In Southampton he just dominated.”
That idea that he ‘dominated’ on the south coast wasn’t really a popular one though, not even amongst Southampton supporters, and so a narrative formed.
The longed-for Mkhitaryan was costing Manchester United £26million. When Liverpool wrapped up the signing of Mane from Southampton a week prior to Mkhitaryan’s move, he cost them £34million.
And that was a problem.
‘Mane vs Mkhitaryan: Who got the better deal?’ screamed Football365 after both moves were confirmed, in an article which ended with: “Mane has some way to go to justify his price tag, the United wannabe looks to be worth every penny of his.”
And that was the prevailing thought at the time, with stats and other perceptions freely available to back up the idea. ‘A poor man’s Lingard’ read one tweet, ‘that makes Jonathan Walters worth £90million’ said another.
Fast forward five years, and here we are.
Mane has now scored 100 goals for Liverpool, winning the Champions League and the Premier League along the way, with Mkhitaryan passing through Manchester United, briefly to Arsenal and now plying his trade with Roma.
The Armenian has clearly been a gifted footballer over his time, but Mane’s emergence as one of the modern game’s great forwards must serve as a real lesson on the way we judge players, and crucially on the way we judge a manager’s ability to improve them.
Klopp had seen that potential years before he even arrived at Liverpool, and wanted to tap into that hunger and that desire that he didn’t think he’d get from a player who he’d already influenced.
It is safe to say he made the right call.