In defence of Salah: Why decline has been overstated

The debate surrounding Mohamed Salah has become heated and not just on the touchline. The spat between two club legends makes for an unseemly end to Jurgen Klopp’s reign and a potentially incendiary talking point that will divide supporters.

There are those saddened by Salah’s reaction and those angered by it. Others will sympathise with the frustrations of a player who has done so much for Liverpool – and feels he is capable of more – being introduced so late in a game they needed to win.

What happens next is complicated by his contract situation and the backdrop of interest from Saudi Arabia that could prove irresistible to the player – or indeed the club. At 32, economic realities are a factor even before the arrival of Arne Slot is considered.

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Sky Sports News’ Kaveh Solhekol gives greater insight into Mohamed Salah’s future

Michael Edwards, the returning chief executive of football, will need that cool head upon which his reputation has been built when navigating this decision. That does not necessarily mean cutting out the emotion, but it does demand an examination of the evidence.

Salah’s form does seem to have slumped since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations and the injury that undermined Egypt’s efforts in that tournament. The eye test cannot be ignored. Salah’s displays have lacked the old zip and the finishing has been erratic.

Once a player enters the autumn of their career, it is inevitable that any dip is framed as final. But there is a need to temper the frustration at a missed title opportunity and consider Salah’s record dispassionately – because the numbers this season still stack up.

He is a victim, perhaps, of sky-high expectations, and naturally finds himself compared to his past self rather than the other options in his position, both at Liverpool and elsewhere. But look at the goal and assist charts for this Premier League season and Salah is there.

He ranks sixth for goals and fourth for assists. Only Cole Palmer and Ollie Watkins, both regarded as having extraordinary seasons rather than career-ending lows, have been involved in more Premier League goals than this relatively subdued version of Salah.

Delve deeper and one can see that since his debut season at Liverpool, in which Salah scored 32 Premier League goals, 44 in all competitions, and was off-the-charts special, the legend of the Egyptian king being forged, he has been remarkably consistent.

Salah’s output this season is broadly in line with all other campaigns. Indeed, he has scored more regularly this season than in some of his previous seasons. The difference is that he has dipped below his expected goals total. The finishing has not been so good.

A miskick here, a snatched shot there. Poor choices that have frustrated him and his fans. It is possible that the wastefulness of others around him has had an impact on his decision-making. The picture has not been as clear as when he was in his pomp.

Encouragingly, he has still been having the chances. Not having them is the tell-tale sign of real decline. Despite the perception that he has been ‘quiet’ this is a reason to believe – given that finishing form fluctuates – that Salah could easily go on another scoring run.

Even more impressively, Salah has maintained these underlying numbers despite a fundamental change to his positioning. This shift means he is collecting the ball in positions further away from the opposition box, both in terms of width and depth.

Mohamed Salah's positioning for Liverpool has evolved over the years
Mohamed Salah’s positioning for Liverpool has evolved over the years

It is an evolution that began prior to this season, a consequence of changes subtle and significant. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role has altered, moving inside rather than out, while Darwin Nunez is very different to Roberto Firmino, who vacated space for Salah.

As a result, his role has morphed into that of a more traditional wide player. Peruse his heatmaps year-on-year and the change can clearly be observed. It has been gradual but examine the contrast between his first Liverpool season and this one and it becomes obvious.

Mohamed Salah's positioning for Liverpool has evolved over the years
Mohamed Salah has found himself much wider for Liverpool this season

As well as Klopp’s tactics driving some of this change, it reflects Salah’s profile too. He is not the dribbler of his youth. He completes fewer dribbles now and not just because he tries them less often. His success rate has dipped from 56 per cent to a low of 31 per cent.

It is testament to Salah’s talent that he has been able to adapt. He has become more creative, conjuring opportunities for others. Salah is playing more through-balls now than at any other time of his career. Nobody in the Premier League has created more big chances.

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Expected assists intuitively feel like a fairer calculation of chance creation than assists because the figure is not dependent on whether someone else takes that opportunity – particularly pertinent given the often wild finishing of Nunez in front of goal.

Salah’s expected assists per 90 minutes this season are the highest of his Liverpool career. He has never been this effective at laying on chances for others. The result is that his combined expected goals and assists total ranks him second in the Premier League.

Mohamed Salah ranks second in the Premier League this season for combined expected goals and assists
Mohamed Salah underlying numbers for Liverpool this season remain strong

Only Erling Haaland has higher expected goal involvements this season, putting Salah ahead of both Palmer and Bukayo Saka. These are the sort of numbers that the Liverpool hierarchy would be wise to keep in mind when considering Salah’s future.

It may well be that decline is imminent even if it has not yet begun. Many factors play into this decision. Whichever way it falls, the challenge is to shut out the noise surrounding Mohamed Salah and assess the player that he still is as well as the player he once was.

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