Mohamed Salah may not quite be hitting the dizzying individual heights of last season, but Jurgen Klopp is turning him into a more well-rounded player and Liverpool are reaping the rewards.
That is the opinion of former Reds star John Barnes, who claims Salah is actually enjoying a better campaign this year than his stellar season of 12 months ago – one in which he scored 32 league goals in 36 games to break the record for most in a 38-game league season.
It was a campaign in which Salah’s stupendous goal-scoring exploits fired Liverpool into the Champions League final – where they eventually lost 3-1 to Real Madrid.
But Barnes insists he’d rather see his old club fighting tooth and nail with “one of the best teams in premier League history” in Manchester City for the English top-flight title instead of finishing a mammoth 25 points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s dominant champions like they did a year ago.
Salah has, unfathomably, come in for stinging criticism from outside Anfield this season for falling short of last term’s, admittedly stunning, tally.
This despite the fact he is still joint top scorer in the Premier League this season with 19 goals – alongside City’s scintillating Sergio Aguero – while he has seven assists, only three shy of 2017/18.
His lesser impact is down to a mix of Salah working harder defensively, shouldering a bigger creative burden and working harder defensively as Liverpool have married last season’s style with substance this term.
“He’s had a better season this year,” said Barnes, who spent a decade at Anfield, speaking exclusively to Sport360 in Dubai.
“The team is top of the league whereas last year he was top scorer in a team that finished fourth. It doesn’t matter if he scores 40 goals. Would you rather Salah do that and finish fifth or Salah score 20 goals and the team finish first?
“The whole idea he’s having a worse season is ridiculous, I think he’s having a better season. Obviously, the team plays differently now. He’s helped the team do better while still being one of the main players.”
Salah was always fighting a losing battle to match such mesmeric standards he set 12 months ago – a campaign in which he netted an unbelievable 44 goals in 52 games in all competitions.
He surpassed the feats of former Liverpool hotshot Luis Suarez and ex-Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo who each scored 31 league goals in 2013/14 and 2007/08 respectively.
And yet, the 26-year-old has still been dazzling. Whether by choice or the design of his coach, the focus has fallen on team-mates like Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk, as well as the collective.
But it is a tactic that was necessary if Klopp – without a trophy in three-and-a-half years as Reds’ boss – is to end the club’s 29-year top-flight league title drought.
Barnes, who was part of the last Liverpool side to lift a league championship with Liverpool, in 1989/90, knows Klopp is focused on the bigger picture, while also making Salah a better player overall.
Asked if Klopp’s shift this season to improve both player and team – bringing in Dutch defender Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson to make them difficult to score against in addition to playing breathtaking, attacking football, Barnes said: “Absolutely.
“That’s where Chelsea have fallen down. It’s all about Eden Hazard. He’s been doing fantastically well but no-one else on the team has.
“If Hazard didn’t dribble as much and passed more you’d see more of the other players and the team doing better. I’m not a fan of individuals doing better than the team.
“Last year we were conceding a lot of goals. Now we’re defending more and playing more consistently as a team when we haven’t got the ball.
“Salah’s probably working harder defensively, he’s passing the ball more now, and other players are scoring which means he’ll score less. We had a similar situation with (Robbie) Fowler and (Stan) Collymore where they were scoring a lot of goals.
“If somebody scores goals, somebody else will score less. The fact that Mane, (Roberto) Firmino and midfield players are scoring means Salah will score less. It means the team’s playing better.”
As for the Messiah-like moulding of last season’s magician, Klopp is coaxing the best out of his team too. One that Barnes believes is on the cusp of something special.
Who knows what would have happened had the five-time winners not lost talisman Salah to a first-half injury in controversial circumstances in Kiev last May – but Barnes, like Klopp, is eyeing the bigger picture.
“I think Liverpool could be on cusp of something special, absolutely,” added Barnes, who will take part in the DHL Swing Against Cancer Golf Series which gets under way with the DHL Open at Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club on May 2.
“Would I rather get to the Champions League final last year and finish 25 points off the top of the league, or finish second, one point off the top and not won a trophy? I’d much rather be one point off the top because that shows you the team you are week in, week out.
“There’s no point getting to the Champions League final but finishing fourth or fifth, 20 points off the top. That’s not a good team. That shows you can be lucky to get to the Champions League final whereas to do what you do in the league shows you the team you really are.
“A lot of fans talk about not winning anything (this year) and what if we lose out. It will be a disappointment but think about what we’ve done, having lost one game all year.
“We’re up against one of the best teams in premier League history. We can’t control what Man City have done, we can only control what we’ve done and we’ve been excellent.”
*To enter the DHL Open or any DHL Swing Against Cancer Golf Series event or to attend any of the evening events, email: [email protected]
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