As information about everything gains in abundance with every passing day, the jobs of journalists and pundits is becoming tougher. They have to sieve through a deluge of information to find the trends and then form their opinions on those trends. This is, of course, the ideal and the longer method of forming opinions and imparting them.
The easier one is to form an opinion and then find an example to prove your point. Many a politician, political journalists, sports journalist, and pundit have fallen prey to the lure of this shorter and simpler method. The latest football pundit who has taken this route to make his point is Arsene Wenger. The former Arsenal manager was offering his take on the pseudo-controversy that was caused by Sadio Mane’s reaction to Mohamed Salah’s apparent reluctance to pass the ball to him when he was in a better shooting position.
Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, has played it down, saying that “we spoke about it and everything is fine”. However, Wenger thought he had a better insight into this matter, which he offered saying, “He [Salah] has similarities with Messi, He must find the consistency of Messi. I find he’s a good finisher, but Messi has the complete thing, he gives the final ball as well. Salah is a bit obsessed with finishing himself. That’s a dimension he’ll get certainly, when he grows a little bit older, to find the moment when you have to give the ball and when you have to finish.”
Now, even as a Liverpool supporter and a Salah fan, I think the comparison with the GOAT is slightly over the top. I think even Mohamed Salah himself would think so. But, at the same time, saying that Salah needs to learn when to give the ball and when to finish is equally nonsensical. In my view, in this instance, Wenger was extrapolating one example to indicate a trend or a tendency. He is taking the shortcut of forming an opinion and adding an example to back it up.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do that. We can take a look at some stats and just see if Salah is indeed “too obsessed with finishing himself” or not.
How Finishing Obsessed is Salah
If we look beyond the only example from Turf Moor that Wenger and the tabloids seem to be harping about, we would find that last season Salah ranked third in the entire Premier League for xA (open play) with 5.95 xA. He also provided 7 assists in the Premier League campaign last season. He also ranked second in the league in terms of Big Chances created (13). In just getting his teammates to shoot (key passes), Salah ranked 10th. Overall Salah’s minutes per xA is 364. Sadio Mane, who was miffed with the Egyptian for missing the opportunity to pass, himself fares rather poorly on all these metrics – 2.87 xA, only 1 assist in the league last season, just 4 Big Chances created, 27 key passes all season and 792 minutes per xA. Even if one keeps in mind that Salah is one of the primary corners and free-kick takers for Liverpool, this comparison from last season definitely shows that if anyone among the Liverpool front three needs to learn to contribute to the others’ goals, it is not Salah.
This season, it is true that Mane is contributing more to others’ shots – xA of 1.24 in 4 games, compared to just 0.63 for Salah. But the season has just started and we would expect any divergent metric to converge to the mean by the end of the season. Further, if we extrapolate just that one number – 0.63 xA for 4 games, then we can expect Salah to have an xA of 5.5 – 6.0 by the end of the season – inline with his last few seasons.
Now, since Wenger included Messi into the comparison, let us see how Mane and Salah compare with Lionel Messi in enabling others to shoot. It shows how far ahead of everyone else, no matter how good those others are, Lionel Messi is. In last two calendar years, in their respective leagues, national cups, and Champions League, Messi, Salah, and Mane have provided 37, 21, and 8 assists respectively, against their respective expected assists of 33.48, 22.31, and 12.55. More of their creation stats in the chart below:
Now, these stats substantiate both my points about Wenger’s observations. Salah cannot be compared to Messi as of now and even though he made a mistake at Burnley, Salah is not “too obsessed with finishing”. In fact, he is one of the main creators for Liverpool.
Reasons for Salah not Passing
Now that we have established that Salah is not the selfish guy that pundits like Wenger want us to believe, let us just explore bit more on what could have caused him not to pass in that one instance at Turf Moor. There could have been multiple factors:
Salah himself has been in good scoring form during the past couple of weeks and he might have felt confident of adding to his tally. Both Mane and Firmino had got themselves on the scoresheet, by the time this event occurred, so he could have also thought of getting on to the scoresheet himself. But whatever be the reason, just how much of an error was it for Salah not to pass? Salah, averages close to 6 touches in the box per 90 minutes and of those he has 3.33 shots per 90 and 2.31 key passes per 90. With his goal-scoring abilities and his current form (xG per 90 of 0.70), we cannot blame him if he shoots a bit more than he passes in the penalty box. Decisions like these are split-second decisions and to say that Salah’s error was due to a pre-decided notion is wrong.
Mountain of a Molehill
I do not think Mohamed Salah or for that matter, even Sadio Mane are thinking about that missed pass any more. They must be looking forward to completing the international break and taking on Newcastle United on next Saturday. It is the tabloids and pundits like Wenger who are creating this mountain of a molehill – blowing up some natural reactions to suggest that there is a rift brewing in the Liverpool front three. As Klopp said after the Burnley game, “We sort these things out in a second, but not in public.”