These days, Red Bull Salzburg are increasingly known across Europe and the wider world as developers of elite talent, from Erling Haaland, to Takumi Minamino, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano, Hwang Hee-chan, Dominik Szoboszlai and more.
The Red Bull model in general has also produced Timo Werner and Joshua Kimmich, both of whom were taken to the Leipzig side of the family as teenagers.
Red Bull took over Salzburg in 2005 and immediately re-branded the club, while Leipzig in Germany soon followed in 2009. In Salzburg, the Red Bull revolution brought immediate success back to the club, but the focus also saw a shift in the early 2010s to talent spotting.
Sadio Mane is perhaps the original Red Bull success story, emerging from humble beginnings to reach world class status within a few years.
Salzburg scouts clearly saw something in a 20-year-old Mane for the club to sanction a €4m transfer. He had left home in Senegal without his family’s knowledge, venturing to France where he earned a contract with second tier side Metz. Relegation meant he was playing in the third tier of French football by the time the call came from Austria and €4m was a considerable fee in the context.
Bur Salzburg gave him the platform he needed to become what he is now. After winning the Austrian Bundesliga, they sold him on to Southampton for just shy of £12m in 2014, turning a tidy profit and proof of concept that they have relied upon ever since.
Mane was a hit at Southampton and got better in his second year on the south coast – year on year improvement has been a major feature of his entire career – helping the Saints record a sixth place Premier League finish in 2015/16, their highest in 29 years.
Liverpool then agreed that he was worth £34m and took Mane to Anfield in the summer of 2016, making him the first major buy of the fast developing Jurgen Klopp era on Merseyside.
Mane’s journey over the last four years has matched Liverpool’s. He didn’t arrive as a world class superstar, joining a team that was still finding its feet, but became world class as the Reds moved from promising contenders to champions of Europe, the world and, perhaps most crucially, England.
Mohamed Salah has taken more plaudits and Roberto Firmino is more technical, but Mane is arguably the single most important part of Liverpool’s fabled front-three. He is the one who is truly electric, does more for the team as a whole, and more often makes a decisive difference.
“Consistency was the key and absolutely now what he is doing and how he performs is consistent. The level he performs at is unbelievable. He helps us massively. He is a complete player, offensively and defensively he works hard, he is really quick,” Klopp gushed over Mane in July 2020.
“He came as a young boy and he grew up, matured here. That is normal in the time of his career when it was clear it would happen and we were lucky enough to be around while that happened.”
Having called him ‘complete’, Klopp also went on to add the ‘world class’ label.
“Becoming a very good player to a world class player, no doubt about that, and he is a winner on top of that. It's great to have him here,” the Liverpool boss said.
That consistency at the highest level over the last two years has set Mane apart and is what makes him one of the select few world class left forwards in the game today.
Liverpool ran Manchester City to the wire in the 2018/19 Premier League title race, finishing with what was then the third highest points tally in Premier League history, because of Mane’s impact.
From January onwards, he scored regularly and decisively, and in the second half of the campaign never went more than two Premier League games without a goal. He went on to win a share of the Golden Boot, matching Salah for goals, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year – actually the only Liverpool attacking player who was included.
In the Champions League, Mane had scored in the previous season’s final when goalkeeping errors and a Gareth Bale wonder goal were the differences between Liverpool and Real Madrid. He scored 10 goals in the competition in 2017/18, as did Salah and Firmino, and it was no mean feat considering it was first playing at that level in more than just qualifying rounds.
Mane helped Liverpool go one better and become European champions in 2019, before again his remarkable consistency shone through and contributed to the 2019/20 Premier League title triumph. He was particularly the difference in wins over Southampton, Newcastle, Leicester, Aston Villa and Everton as the Reds ran up an unassailable lead by January.
At times throughout his Liverpool career, he has carried the team’s impetus. The club could not have enjoyed the same success without him and to do it a time when Manchester City were setting new records and raising the bar to unprecedented levels is even more stunning.
For Mane, who had to work so hard just to play football professionally in the first place, at 28 he believes that this is not the pinnacle, that the journey is far from over and wants more.
“I think as a player I'm still learning,” he said over the summer. “I never stop learning and you can see me and all of the [Liverpool] boys have been developed a lot. We never stop working harder because it has always been a dream for me to play and always getting better and better.”