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Mo Salah

Liverpool, 2018/19 Season

Mo Salah was, alongside fellow Africans Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Premier League’s top goalscorer in the 2018/19 season. His total of 22 goals in 38 matches was, however, a drop from the previous year’s 32 in 36 – when, as the outright winner of the Golden Boot, he became only the ninth player to score more than 30 goals in a Premier League season.

The Egyptian’s assist figures also fell from 10 to eight, though during a campaign in which Liverpool’s expansive full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were so influential they were both named in the PFA team of the season. Salah, by contrast, was overlooked.

Expectations that he could match the remarkable statistics of his first season were probably unrealistic. Opponents have become significantly more aware of his threat and strengths, and it’s important to note he doesn’t even operate as an out-and-out striker. A reduction from such impressively high numbers was almost inevitable.

Alan Shearer remains the only player to hit the 30-goal mark in consecutive Premier League seasons. It is also worth noting that only Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry have followed a 30-plus-goal Premier League season with a total higher than Salah’s recent 22.

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The selection of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as overlapping full-backs meant Salah’s responsibilities in the final third increasingly came in central positions. His reduced assists were therefore a natural consequence of the full-backs’ emergence rather than a decline in the Egyptian’s quality; there were also signs during the 2017/18 campaign that he was evolving from the wide player witnessed during his time with Roma into a more centrally focused finisher.

Philippe Coutinho was similarly influential during Salah’s first season at Liverpool; the Egyptian registered more than 60 per cent of his total assists for 2017/18 before Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona in the January transfer window. The Brazilian was a significant threat in central areas (below), ensuring Salah’s creative responsibilities came from the wider areas or inside channels; as a result, only 30 per cent of his assists came from central positions.

After Coutinho’s transfer, Alexander-Arnold began to consistently feature at right-back, with Salah registering three further open-play assists for the second half of the season, and two from a central position. He also then embarked on his most prolific goalscoring run as a Premier League player; his more central role contributed to him scoring 14 goals in 12 appearances.

Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were even more influential during the past season as Liverpool increasingly thrived on their crossing abilities (below). Salah remained a threat from the right, but four of his seven open-play assists came within central areas; the overlap provided by Robertson also meant Mane playing with less width and therefore providing Salah with a runner in behind the opposition’s defence.

It is largely for that reason that goals from Mane represented 40 per cent of Salah’s assists; most of the other 60 per cent came via runners from central midfield during moments of transition. That Jurgen Klopp gradually asked his midfield to cover behind the ball, and his team to increase their possession, meant that those supporting runs were also reduced. This also affected Salah’s potential to create.

Liverpool’s building shape became more expansive as the season progressed, which meant both an increasing number of moving parts to cover spaces that left them at risk from counter-attacks, and central midfielders moving into wide areas and inside channels as false full-backs to cover Robertson’s and Alexander-Arnold’s attacks. This again undermined what had been one of Salah’s assist patterns.

Throughout 2017/18, Salah’s prolific goal return owed much to his direct movements away from the ball. His instinct is generally to run towards goal, regardless of his attacking position, and this became a focal point of Liverpool’s play as they focused on increasingly quick transitions. Mane would support from wide on the left, while Roberto Firmino would roam and drift towards possession, making Salah the prime threat in behind the defence or ahead of the ball after a turnover (below, left).

Salah was not nearly as well supported by overlaps from right-back, which meant he often attacked his opposition full-back directly and scored multiple goals through attacking at the near post – where space was regularly created by Firmino dragging central defenders out of position. When Salah’s qualities became more widely recognised in his second season, however, he was often confronted by multiple defenders in the final third, increasing the number of times he was dispossessed from 95 in 2017/18 to 119 in 2018/19. His more central role meant him often facing two defenders – or even three against teams with a back five – and yielded him fewer chances to attack one-on-one.

The 27-year-old did not have substantially fewer shots on goal, however. His total of 144 from his first season was reduced to only 137 for his second – and, despite scoring fewer, he also missed fewer clear-cut chances, dropping from 23 to 16.

With the roles of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold having developed, Salah was also often joined by Mane as Liverpool’s most advanced attacker (above, right). Where he was once the forward most strongly positioned to score, Mane’s similar movements and runs meant a further option and, inevitably, a more even spread of both chances and goals between them.

A further sign of the change in goal return by Salah and Mane came in the increase in the number of through balls the Egyptian played. His wider passing range throughout 2018/19 meant an increase from eight to 19 through balls – perhaps another factor in Salah being Liverpool’s biggest contributor (30) when it came to combined goals and assists across the league season. As things turned out, it wasn’t so bad after all.

Mo Salah

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