Murmurs of discontent have started to become audible about Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
A seven-match goalless streak, and just one strike during his last 10 run-outs, in all competitions has coincided with a period of intense anticipation as the Reds aim to prevent their pained wait for the Premier League’s title extending past 29 years.
Has the Egyptian King’s crown slipped, or is he undertaking a self-sacrificing role in manager Jurgen Klopp’s recalibrated system?
WHAT HE’S DOING
A naked look at the EPL numbers, unavoidably, points to a drop in Salah’s output.
The Egypt forward has 17 goals and seven assists in 31 top-flight run-outs this term. He ended 2017/18 on 32 goals and 10 assists from 36 appearances.
Looking at his two campaigns on Merseyside, the 26-year-old is averaging more minutes per goal (156.4 in 2018/19 – 92.3 in 2017/18) and assist (379.9 in 2018/19 – 295.4 in 2017/18) this season when juxtaposed to his record-breaking debut.
He is also having less shots per 90 minutes (3.5 in 2018/19 – 4.4 in 2017/18) and is getting into fewer advantageous positions, as adjudged by a decline in expected goals per 90 minutes (0.62 in 2018/19 – 0.77 in 2017/18).
This latest pair of statistics play into a perceived conservative streak being applied by Klopp during 2018/19. But is this trope true about the German?
Liverpool’s goals per game has, actually, marginally improved this term (2.26 in 2018/19 – 2.21 in 2017/18), with the disparity for big chances created per game negligible (1.97 in 2018/19 – 2.05 in 2017/18).
The Reds have already levelled 2017/18’s tally of 17 clean sheets. It will also take some collapse to match last term’s concession of 38 goals – their present count is just 18 with seven dates to fulfil.
Beyond any tactical tweak, a full season of imperious Netherlands centre-back Virgil van Dijk, plus last summer’s then world-record addition of Brazil No1 Alisson, are major contributors to this new solidity.
Salah is averaging slightly more tackles per game (0.5 in 2018/19 – 0.3 in 2017/18), but his interceptions per match is the same (0.1). This does not point to a fresh burden of defensive duties.
Intriguingly, Salah’s key passes per 90 minutes (1.90 in 2018/19 – 1.89 in 2017/18) and expected assists per 90 minutes (0.29 in 2018/19 – 0.25 in 2017/18) have remained, broadly, static. This contradicts a narrative about growing greed.
From the right wing, Salah strikes fear into all opponents.
Left-backs in the Premier League, however, have been able to rest easier this season.
In 2017/18, Klopp utilised a 4-3-3 formation for 30 of the Reds’ 38 fixtures. On the four occasions he used a 4-2-3-1, Brazil striker Roberto Firmino was usually up top.
A notable tactical change has occurred this term. 4-3-3 (17 matches) has stayed in favour, but less markedly when compared to 4-2-3-1 (11 matches).
When the 4-2-3-1 has been used in 2018/19, Salah has largely been the spearhead with Firmino dropping back into a No10 position.
This subtle alteration has multiplied the amount of times the €39 million signing from Roma in June 2017 has, directly, had two centre-backs to deal with rather than one left-back. Furthermore, such a role has put an increased onus on hold-up play and performing with back to goal.
If 2017/18 at Liverpool turned into getting the best out of a singular, stellar component in Salah, 2018/19 has been about the collective.
Salah scored 38.1 per cent of their EPL goals then. Firmino notched 17.9 per cent and Senegal forward Mane registered 11.9 per cent.
Salah and Mane have each contributed 24.3 per cent this term, while Firmino’s sat on 15.7 per cent.
Salah’s standing has necessitated the increased use of double markers on him in 2018/19. This has hampered his offensive impact, while granting renewed space for the likes of Mane.
The attacker’s movement, furthermore, has been regularly selfless. He twice dragged the Arsenal defence apart for Firmino’s goals from open play in December’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal.
A similar trick granted Mane his first strike in this month’s 4-2 triumph against Burnley.
Salah’s failure to pass to the same player when clean through at Bayern Munich in last week’s Champions League round-of-16 decider grabbed attention, but isn’t explanatory of his play at large.
Confidence must also be a factor – and only Salah, himself, can elucidate his frame of mind.
A shooting accuracy of 47 per cent in 2017/18 delivered 32 goals. In 2018/19, a rise to 49 per cent has, only, produced 17 strikes – to date.
For an isolated – but illustrative – example, a trademark curled shot flew into the grateful arms of Everton’s Jordan Pickford in the centre of his goal during this month’s drab scoreless draw.
In 2017/18, he pirouetted past left-back Cuco Martina, held off defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye and, surging with belief, placed an unstoppable shot into Pickford’s top corner to earn the FIFA Puskas Award for best goal.
An element of fortune has also deserted Salah this term. Moments to match February 2018’s double implosion from the Tottenham Hotspur defence, gifts gratefully accepted and ruthlessly dispatched, plus Manchester City shot stopper Ederson’s unwitting assist a month prior, have been rare.
Fine margins. But they have, seemingly, started going against Salah more frequently.
WHAT THEY SAY
Even within the Reds ranks, dissatisfaction has been voiced.
Former defender Jamie Carragher, who made 737 appearances for them from 1996-2013, reacted on Sky Sports to Salah’s display in Sunday’s 2-1 win at Fulham by saying: “He has been selfish and greedy, no doubt. His record for Liverpool has been outstanding in the Premier League – scoring and creating goals.
“Nobody has been involved in more goals this season, he’s been a constant threat. But two or three times today he’s got to get his head up and see what’s around him.”
Predictably, Klopp has remained sanguine.
“It’s our life, sometimes you score and sometimes not,” the German told beIN Sports after the Fulham trip. “It is completely normal and any striker could face a situation like that.
“I am completely happy with his performance with the team.”
Ahead of the Bayern clash, home goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also spoke of Salah’s enduring menace and fear he sparks.
‘Because he only scores one in the last eight doesn’t mean anything,” he stated.
Salah is scoring less goals and getting fewer assists per minute in the EPL during 2018/19.
History is also against him. Since the top-flight’s inauguration in 1992/93, only Alan Shearer (1995/96), Cristiano Ronaldo (2007/08) and Luis Suarez (2013/14) had managed to notch 31 times in a 38-game season before he surpassed them.
What he summoned in 2017/18 is an outlier. For context, Salah’s combined tally of goals and assists for 2018/19 is the joint best at 24.
The Egyptian’s present barren run is bothersome, while he’s increasingly deployed in a manner that stymies his individual threat.
Liverpool, however, last season finished 25 points behind runaway champions Man City in fourth. They now sit first, with a two-point advantage – albeit having played one more match – over the holders.
At the 31-game mark of the previous campaign, Liverpool had 63 points in third and Salah had 28 goals. Fast forward to today and they lead on 76 points, with Salah scoring on 17 occasions.
Salah’s numerical return is weaker. Liverpool’s collective, however, is unquestionably stronger.
No matter the rising scrutiny, he continues to play an enormous role in a season that promises so much.
Liverpool star Mohamed Salah has his eyes set on the Premier League trophy, even though he considers the Champions League the most prestigious piece of silverware.
The winger wants to bring an evasive maiden Premier League trophy to the city as that is the prize the people of Liverpool care about most.
“I will be honest with you, the most prestigious competition for me is the Champions League,” Salah told Sky Sports .
“But the dream for the entire city and the club is the league. So, I am happy to sacrifice my dream for their dream but if we win both that would be great and this is what we are trying to do.”
The Egyptian has scored 20 goals this season but has now drawn a blank in five games across all competitions.
Salah is hoping that he can help Liverpool win all their games and that league leaders Manchester City slip up.
“The competition is very tough and we have difficult games left as do they,” he added.
“All you can do is win your games and hopefully they will fail in one so we can win the title.“
Mohamed Salah entered Sunday’s game against Manchester United having never scored against Liverpool‘s fierce rivals, a record he was desperate to set right as the Reds looked to continue their Premier League title charge.
However, he came up against a stubborn United defence and put in a strangely listless display, so much so that he was taken off before the end of the game even as his side chased a winning goal.
Here’s a closer look at how Salah got on during the 0-0 draw.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 1
Shots on target – 0
Passing accuracy – 79%
Key passes – 0
Dribbles – 1
Jurgen Klopp delivered the ultimate verdict on Salah’s performance today. With 10 minutes left and Liverpool chasing a goal to win the game, the manager took off his leading goal-scorer.
The decision may have elicited some surprise; after all, even on a bad day the best players are capable of producing a moment of quality, but the fact that Klopp felt he was more likely to get that moment from Divock Origi rather than Salah was telling. This was a poor performance.
#MUFC are the only side that Mohamed Salah has faced more than once in the Premier League but not scored or assisted a single goal against (4 games).— ᗷIᒪᒪ ᖇIᑕᕮ 🎙📻 (@billrice23) February 24, 2019
It’s hard to pinpoint anything Salah did well on Sunday. He couldn’t break the shackles of a disciplined United defence, and showed little imagination in trying to do something different to get into the game. Instead he ended with the fewest touches of any player who started the game, and none of those 41 touches were threatening.
Given that Salah was getting little joy sticking to the wing as he usually does, he should have tried popping up in different places, dropping deeper to get on the ball more often, or perhaps drifting into the centre of the attack to give United something different to think about. Instead, he drifted out of the game.
There was a strange lack of vision and incisiveness to Salah’s play on the ball, especially with his passing. His link-up play with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and then Daniel Sturridge was short of its usual best, and it showed as he didn’t create a single chance in the game.
Salah’s drought against Manchester United continued – though in fairness, it’s only been four games. No one truly doubts the Egyptian’s big-game credentials, but that he keeps failing to have an impact against one of Liverpool’s biggest rivals is no doubt a source of frustration, not least for Salah himself.
Credit should go to United’s defenders, as well, with Luke Shaw in particular doing an excellent job of stifling the Liverpool star. Salah will have some work to do the next time he faces United.
RATING – 4/10