Mohamed Salah is a very good footballer. A move to Liverpool in 2017 and fine performances in his first season at the club catapulted him almost instantly into the upper echelons of elite footballers. His third-place finish at the FIFA Men’s Player Of The Year awards in 2018 was the first time a Premier League footballer had featured in the top three in a decade.
It was no surprise then that he was quickly embraced by the league and especially Liverpool supporters as one of their own. His off-the-field work and status as an Arab and Muslim footballer with progressive views has raised his profile around the world and he is one of the most recognised players on the planet today. To general bemusement though, comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo followed his incredible numbers last season; 44 goals and 16 assists in all competitions for Liverpool.
This season has shown that he is not yet at the level of those two fantastic footballers. His returns aren’t bad. Most footballers would take 26 goals and 10 assists. Riding the wave of being a bit of an unknown quantity last season though, especially in the league, he could run riot and wreak havoc. Now that he has been found out a bit, a few weaknesses in his game have come to the fore, none more so than a habit of holding on to the ball far too long.
He was criticised on air by former Liverpool defender, Jaime Carragher, in March for being ‘selfish and greedy’. With a Premier League record in sight, Salah went through a barren streak for almost two months, and the observation was on point. Trying to do things on his own, he often missed teammates in better positions to score and it did not help that Liverpool’s results were middling during this period.
He would break his drought in April against Southampton and become the fastest Liverpool player to 50 goals in the Premier League. With yet another damaging draw in sight, Jordan Henderson sent him on his way in a fast break and with two Saints defenders and the goalkeeper closing in, he would choose to shoot rather than play an unmarked Roberto Firmino in. It paid off on this occasion but there have been way too many instances this season where it has not.
Make no mistake, Salah has played well this season. Drawing the attention of defenders after his exploits last season, his movement and general play have opened up opportunities for others, most notably, Sadio Mane. Only the fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have provided more assists than the Egyptian. An epic title race has shown, however, that the margins are small in elite football.
Lionel Messi gave a master class over both legs against Liverpool (the length of his career really) on when to release the ball while being pressured by opposition players. Even in a disastrous second leg and a generally poor game for him overall, he made three key passes, setting up opportunities for his teammates to score. This is the aspect of his game that Salah can improve upon and hopefully a very good footballer can make the transition to becoming truly great.
First up is the Champions League final against Tottenham on the 1st of June. He has unfinished business from last season’s final, when a Sergio Ramos assisted injury ended his game early. The worry for Liverpool fans would be that Salah might be on a mission and try to do things on his own, as he has been wont to do this season. With the game on the line and a fast break on, will he release the ball if needed? On the edge of a crowded Spurs box, will he elect to shoot when a teammate is in a better position?
The fine margins hurt Liverpool in the title race. They can ill afford the same in the game that could make or break a fine campaign. Over to you, Mohamed Salah.