MO SALAH: A VICTIM OF HIS OWN SUCCESS?
As Arsenal lifted the FA Cup at Wembley to close out the 140th and probably the most unique top-flight campaign of English football, all that is left now to round off the season is the distribution of individual honors. As expected, Liverpool, who finally ended their 30-year wait for the Premier League, having shattered a number of records along the way were very much part of the narrative when it came to picking a candidate for the biggest accolade of them all, that of the Player of the Year. A queue consisting of a host of shining stars from other clubs, led by Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, is in the mix for the prize but no one team can provide as many names for the conversation as Liverpool. Sadio Mané, Trent Alexander-Arnold and skipper Jordan Henderson, who recently collected the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award, have predictably had their names thrown into the hat. One notable absentee from the speculation, despite having probably just as many telling contributions as his teammates is that of Mohamed Salah. This begs the question – is Salah a victim of his own success?
When the Egyptian collected the PFA Player of the Year in 2017/18, it was on the back of a stunning goalscoring campaign. On his return to English shores after a failed first stint at Chelsea, Salah showcased an inside forward that combined a winger’s electric pace and skill with a centre-forward’s predatory instinct in front of goal, something not seen since Cristiano Ronaldo’s days at Manchester United. And it was Ronaldo’s long-standing record tally of 31 goals in a league season that Salah surpassed on the final day of that season, going one better to win the golden boot.
In the two seasons that have followed, Salah has understandably failed to hit the dizzying heights of his first campaign in red. Even so, his numbers, often the best way to understand Salah, make a very strong case that he is the most impactful and well-rounded forward in the League. Only De Bruyne’s 31 goal contributions can better Salah’s 29, while only Raúl Jiménez and Gabriel Jesus scored more match-winners with 8 apiece, than the Egyptian King’s 7. Against the ‘Big 6’ as well, no one has more contributions for the title-winners than, you guessed it, Mo Salah.
Unfortunately for him however, fans don’t tend to have their noses dug deep in the record books. Salah has often been dubbed selfish by the Reds’ faithful, despite the fact that only Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have more assists than him. While he does, like all great forwards, have a selfish streak to his game, Salah is far from the lone ranger he is cut out to be. It is simply a case of certain high-profile moments sticking out that have led to this tag being slapped on him. Case in point – his spat with Mané at Burnley in the early weeks of the season, which was thrust into the limelight after the Senegalese erupted on the bench after being substituted, following Salah’s unwillingness to play him through in a number of promising situations. With cynics hoping for a fall out between the red half of Merseyside’s two premier gunmen in front of goal, Klopp was quick to put out any fires of a potential rift.
But the moniker stuck with Salah and it showed. Following the game at Turf Moor, the winger’s form dipped, with just 3 goals in 10 games. In the same time, Mané racked up 7 goals, many of them crucial in the context of the title race, to keep Liverpool’s form at the top of the League imperious, also taking up the mantle of the team’s main man. Of course, Salah’s critics would do well to remember that in the three games in which Mane did not feature, the No. 11 not only stepped up, but dazzled, grabbing at least a goal and assist in all three.
The fact that Salah’s output is so extraordinarily consistent has given rise to the misconception that unless the ex-Roma star has a direct hand in Liverpool’s goals, he is a liability for Klopp’s men. In the autumn months, as Mané took up most of the limelight, it is worthy to note that much like Roberto Firmino, Salah’s mere presence on the pitch makes teams easier to play against by default, what with his diminutive shadow perennially lurking in the half spaces in opposition defences.
A perfect demonstration of this phenomena was on the night the European champions’ defence of their Champions League title came down in flames at the hands of Atlético Madrid. In one of his finest outings of 2019/20, Salah didn’t half look like breaching Jan Oblak’s goal or turning supplier to the man who would. It was a game, however, in which he had Atleti left-back Renan Lodi on toast, with his silky build up play on the right-hand side with Alexander-Arnold and Oxlade-Chamberlain providing much of the ammunition for what was an ultimately fruitless assault from the home side.
He may not be ripping up the record books with the same breakneck speed he once was, but Salah’s value to this Liverpool side remains unparalleled, and the consistency with which he can continue to provide Jürgen Klopp with world-class moments as he has done for most of his three seasons so far at Anfield will determine how much silverware they can keep coming their way.
Was he the best player in this extraordinary Liverpool side? Probably not. But does he deserve a seat at the table for that discussion? Without a doubt.