Mohamed Salah was the scourge of Manchester City last season. Sadly for the champions, if they were savouring reports of his decline, those may have been exaggerated.
Jürgen Klopp has substituted last season’s 44-goal top scorer when Liverpool required a goal against both Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea and admitted the obvious, that the Egyptian is not at the peak of his form. Yet Twelve Football’s leader board still shows Salah as the sixth most effective player in the Premier League so far this season.
The numbers are, in part, a sign of prominence and persistence. Salah has the highest expected goals total in the Premier League (5.14) and the third most shots this season, behind only Aleksandr Mitrovic and Sergio Aguero.
Yet what a map of the Egyptian’s major contributions this season shows is how much he has helped his side out defensively. The red circles, largely in his own half, rebut the theory he can be a luxury player and suggest that he conforms to Klopp’s pressing game more than is often acknowledged.
So far, Salah is averaging 0.9 tackles per league game, according to Whoscored, which is three times as many as last season. He is also making more interceptions and committing more fouls.
What he is doing less often, most obviously, is scoring. As his pitch map shows, two of his three goals have come from within the six-yard box (the most recent, against Southampton, came from about half a yard). The difference from last season comes in the range of his goals: only three of his Premier League record 32 came from outside the penalty area. But the vast majority – 25 – came from inside the 18-yard area, but more than six yards out. And as the numbers show, so far opponents are not stopping Salah from shooting, merely from scoring.
All of which is a dangerous approach. City can testify to Salah’s threat. He has scored in each of Liverpool’s three wins against them already in 2018: one in the Premier League and two in the Champions League.
One difference with last season is that he should have a new (or new-ish) immediate opponent. Salah tormented Nicolas Otamendi then, with Klopp making a mid-match reshuffle in the Champions League tie at the Etihad Stadium so the Egyptian could run at the Argentinian.
Aymeric Laporte started both European ties, but he was pressed into service at left-back at Anfield and was the left of a back three in the return fixture. This should be his first encounter with Salah as a left-sided centre-back in a quartet, the position he was signed to occupy.
A map of the Frenchman’s contributions shows how his spheres of influence are also Salah’s: inside the 18-yard box, where the reigning Footballer of the Year should cut in to shoot, and in what is Liverpool’s inside-right channel. Perhaps the most pertinent element could be the one that is often hardest to assess: his contributions off the ball.
The yellow circles in his dashboard sometimes reflect City’s offside trap working – something that will be imperative if, as Pep Guardiola prefers, they adopt a high defensive line against an attack as quick as Liverpool’s – but also times he put pressure on a player shooting or passing; in short, ways in which he made it difficult for opponents.
Given City’s difficulties halting Liverpool when they were in full flight last season and their inability to stop Salah and co when they developed momentum, that could be crucial. City failed to stop Salah last season and, despite his seemingly slow start to this season, allowing him to carry on shooting contains risks.