Mohamed Salah is an exceptional footballer.
But there have been a few moments where that came into doubt – with one of those times being the dawn of 2021, where Liverpool were rather poor. Salah himself went into Christmas day in sensational form, having scored 13 goals and provided 3 assists in the Premier League alone, yet what followed was rather inexplicable, as the Egyptian scored just four goals in the next 3 months in England. A relatively quiet finish to the season led to speculation that he could leave Anfield, and Salah's Liverpool dream seemed to be coming to an end.
Fast forward to early November of the same year and Salah has been called the “best in the world” by fans, pundits, managers, and players alike, with his 21 goal contributions so far for Liverpool in just over 1300 minutes meaning that he is averaging a goal or assist every 60 minutes on the pitch. Just for context, if Salah continues at this rate for the entire season, he will likely finish on around 50 goals and 19 assists – mind-blowing for someone who does not even play at striker.
And the goals he scores are not all simple finishes either; against Man City, he embarrassed four defenders before unleashing a rocket across goal with his weaker foot, and then scored an almost identical goal a week later at Watford, but this time with his stronger left foot.
So then how has he turned it around? What caused the shift that has brought Salah back to the same form of his record-breaking 17/18 season?
In short, his finishing has improved – drastically. Last season, from an xG (the likelihood that a given shot will go in) per 90 minutes of 0.61, Salah scored 0.64 goals. This implies that his shooting was slightly above average, with this measure ranking him in the 65th percentile. This season, Salah has scored 1.00 goals per 90 from exactly the same xG as the season before, meaning that he is overperforming by 0.39 goals per 90 – for reference, this is 50% better than Salah himself in that sensational 17/18.
However, what we have learned from the past is that a regression to the mean is inevitable. What is meant by that is that eventually, Salah’s finishing will falter; maybe not to the point where it can be considered “bad”, but certainly a noticeable amount.
Having said that, Salah has certainly improved his overall game. His expected assists (the quality of the chances he creates for his teammates) per 90 minutes is at 0.42, more than two times what it was last year. He is also taking more shots, passing forward more, and dribbling more effectively. Even if the goals eventually stop flowing at the current rate, there is no denying that Salah’s impact on each game has improved tremendously.
But going back to the original question, what caused this shift? Because even outside of an enhancement in finishing, Salah has made strides forward in every facet of his game.
The answer is simple: Liverpool finally have a comprehensive midfield and defence. Van Dijk’s return from his long-term injury has closely correlated to an amelioration in Salah’s form, and ever since Keita has returned to dominate the midfield the Reds have looked far more cohesive in the centre of the park. The number of times a Liverpool player was dispossessed during a match has reduced 10%, a not insignificant change that means there are fewer moments that require Jurgen Klopp’s infamous – and energy-sapping – gegenpress to get the ball back. Liverpool’s fullbacks also appear to be back to their best, with their persistent threat from deep and wide meaning teams must leave more numbers closer to their own goal, resulting in fewer forwards for a counter attack that would require Salah and Mane to track back.
Amalgamating this all together shows that the Liverpool frontline, especially Salah and Mane on the wings, no longer have to put in as much of a shift without the ball, resulting in a tangible save in their energy reserves. This change in defensive responsibility is evident in their numbers, and it is particularly important that the quantity of their pressures per 90 has gone down.
The extra energy gained from this has translated into much-improved performance in attack, with the two electric wingers having both been visibly better on the pitch, and in the subtler details and stats.
Although Salah’s renaissance has come a little too late for him to be a genuine contender for the Ballon d’Or, should he continue to dominate games in the same fashion as he is doing now, he will be a bona fide contender to win football’s most coveted individual trophy next year.
But until that time comes, enjoy Mo Salah in all his glory: the pace, the power, the rocket of a left-foot, the unbelievable dribbling, and most of all, the remarkable ability to take a game by the scruff of its neck and snatch a win out of absolutely nothing.