The new man will not kick a ball in earnest for another six weeks but his arrival in Bavaria is already being debated as epoch-defining.
You would expect the national TV rights holders for Germany’s top flight to serve up exactly that sort of breathless spin. Hyperbole aside, though, it’s impossible to overlook the momentous importance of Mane’s transfer from Liverpool for Bayern Munich’s self-esteem and sense of place.
You could see it in the giddy excitement on the faces of sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic, executive chair Oliver Kahn and president Herbert Hainer. You could feel it at any given moment during the one-hour press conference on Wednesday when the festive and immensely self-satisfied atmosphere was more reminiscent of a trophy presentation than the unveiling of a new player.
As far as the German champions were concerned, they had just won the next best thing to the Champions League: the signature of a superstar forward.
Mane will not just positively impact the goals and assists tallies but will strengthen the team’s mental fortitude and togetherness. He will also improve the public standing of the club hierarchy, enhance Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical options, provide restorative comfort against fears of a sustained sporting decline and amplify the league’s international visibility.
Anything else? No wonder Bayern think this guy can win the Ballon d’Or three times in a row.
“Sadio Mane is a world-class player who underlines FC Bayern’s gravitational pull and the appeal of the entire Bundesliga,” Hainer said jubilantly, spelling out a big chunk of the 30-year-old’s multi-faceted usefulness.
The cumulative effect of the Premier League’s dominance combined with the Bundesliga’s limited marketability, state-funded clubs, COVID-19 losses and a Bayern transfer strategy that has delivered a few too many misses in recent years had some worried the club might be forced to adopt the Borussia Dortmund strategy of buying future stars rather than top-shelf reinforcements.
Wednesday, by contrast, was “a show me the money” moment; a €41 million or £35 million (with add-ons) sign that spells out the club’s motto “Mia san Mia”/”we are who we are”.
By capturing one of the Premier League’s best-performing players, Bayern have convinced themselves — and, they hope, a few others — that they continue to be relevant. “We are proud to have signed him,” Salihamidzic said.
There are more practical considerations, too. The sporting director, and to a lesser extent his superior Kahn as well, were under intense pressure to reshape a side plagued by too much mediocrity beyond the starting XI. Mane, the first marquee signing of the post-Uli Hoeness/Karl-Heinz Rummenigge era, makes them both look a lot better than they did a few weeks ago, having presided over a demoralising Champions League quarter-final exit against Villarreal.
Salihamidzic pointedly thanked the player for making up his mind early on — “I could straight away see myself in that team and decided (to join them) straight away,” Mane said — and his agent Bjorn Bezemer for concluding business swiftly. Negotiations with Liverpool sporting director Julian Ward were described as “hard but fair”.
Having been booed by sections of the fans who blamed him for the awful denouement to the season a couple of weeks ago, Salihamidzic suddenly appears a lot more secure in his post. He has pulled off the triple haul of Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui (both from Ajax) and Mane for a very reasonable €60 million (£52 million), all in a very quick and relatively pain-free manner.
And there’s probably a bit of room on the balance sheet yet for one more midfield addition after the departure of Marc Roca (Leeds United) and Corentin Tolisso (end of contract). Nagelsmann would very much like to re-acquaint himself with RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer, for example.
Apart from the need to add depth, the bosses’ post-season analysis also unearthed attitudinal defects. “I said at the end of last season that we needed fresh blood and changes,” Kahn told reporters. “After a long run of success (and 10 championships in a row), some players relaxed. We needed to change the situation. That’s what we’ve achieved by signing Sadio Mane.
“I know what this kind of transfer does to a team, it lifts the level and the quality of everybody else. That’s why it’s so important to have such top players.”
Mane, the “mentality monster” as Salihamidzic called him, will put pressure on the somewhat inconsistent triumvirate of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman to up their game, while instantaneously furnishing Nagelsmann with possibilities for a more unpredictable set-up that breaks with the 4-2-3-1 of the last decade. Internally, there is talk of a shift to a Liverpool-inspired 4-3-3 as well as the manager’s preferred 3-4-3 formation coming to the fore.
Officially, the Poland striker is still not for sale. Kahn emphasised the 33-year-old was under contract for another season and the club expected him to “turn up on the first day of training”. The former Germany goalkeeper was not minded to repeat his more definitive mantra from May (“he has a contract and will fulfil it”) and instead claimed that Bayern were “currently not even thinking about” a future without Lewandowski.
It is a somewhat implausible approach, though, given the centre-forward’s wantaway stance has been the No 1 talking point inside the dressing room for a couple of months. A source close to a veteran player told The Athletic the team expect Lewandowski to move on. Quite a few have grown a little tired of his public posturing, to say nothing of the return of his egotistical streak on the pitch.
Mane, by contrast, could not have been more humble on his second day in the Bavarian capital. Asked about his preferred position, he jokingly pointed at his new coach sitting in the auditorium: “This needs to be answered by the boss!” He declined to voice any preference for a particular shirt number (“not important to me”) and added that he would be happy to play “anywhere apart from goalkeeper or defence”, as long as it helped the team.
In a meeting with Salihamidzic and technical director Marco Neppe at the player’s house, Nagelsmann had detailed his many possible roles in a variety of formations, which further suggests that Lewandowski is more likely to go than not. You do not really plan too much for contingencies when the most reliable goal-machine since Gerd Muller is around.
Losing Lewandowski will probably hurt the Bundesliga more than Bayern, especially after Erling Harland’s departure to Manchester City. Then again, big names leaving is something that the league has become accustomed to and, for once, the familiar pain will be offset by the novel sensation of a world-class performer coming in.
Only Bayern are strong enough to break the mould at that exalted level, which just goes to show the league’s enduring challenges. But a little bit of hype is surely better than none at all.
(Design: Sam Richardson)