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Why Mohamed Salah's early-season form is no cause for concern

JJ Bull
Is Mohamed Salah really underperforming compared to last season?

Is something wrong with Mohamed Salah?

Liverpool's superstar striker hasn't hit the heights of last season and has only scored three goals in eight Premier League games, like he's some sort of human. Jurgen Klopp maintains that the (not literal) King of Egypt will be back firing on all cylinders soon... but could it be that Salah just isn't capable of reproducing his stunning form from last season? 

Did Sergio Ramos break him? Is he a one-season wonder?

There is nothing wrong with Mohamed Salah

Salah has scored three times this season so far. The teams he hasn't scored against are:

  1. Crystal Palace away (where he got an assist)
  2. Leicester away (substituted in the 71st minute)
  3. Spurs away
  4. PSG home
  5. Chelsea away
  6. Napoli away
  7. Man City home

Those last five teams are some of the very best in Europe (yes, even including Spurs) and it shouldn't be surprising that sides with hugely valuable, well-coached defences might be better prepared to deal with the threat posed by Salah than last. Is it really so different this time around?

In the first eight Premier League games of the 2017/18 season, Salah didn't score against Crystal Palace (home), Man City (away), Newcastle (away) and Man Utd (home). In the other four matches, he scored four goals and registered one assist, meaning his record was one goal better than this season's at the same point last year. 

His record in the Champions League isn't massively different either. In the first two group matches of the 2017/18 competition, Salah scored one goal in a 2-2 draw at home with Sevilla and none in a 1-1 draw against Spartak Moscow. This season he hasn't found the net, having played the mighty PSG and Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli.

Salah's individual statistics are almost identical to last season's too with the only notable differences being that he's been caught offside a bit more and attempted slightly more tackles per match.

Delving deeper into the world of Opta statistics reveals Salah has created more chances per game this season, up from 1.9 to 2.3, suggesting he's being less selfish in front of goal - but his 4.4 shots per game last season compared to 4.3 this season shows that there's hardly a difference there either. So what is it?

Liverpool's slight change of style

The thing is, no matter what the statistics tell us, watching Salah at the moment feels different to watching Salah of 2017/18. 

It could be down to a slight tweak in Klopp's approach to games this season, notably in how and where Liverpool press.

This season's Liverpool don't go full throttle in every single minute of each game they play, and although the defensive line is slightly higher this season, they are allowing the opposition to make more passes per defensive action this season (13.5 per game) than last (11.2 per game).

Klopp's team are still forcing high turnovers (4.9 per game this season compared to 4.97 per game last) which suggests Liverpool are playing smart and luring their opponents into pressing traps, forcing teams wide before hunting them down and winning the ball. Does that mean Salah is getting the ball in slightly wider, deeper positions than last season?

Opposition sides were wary of Liverpool last season but utterly terrified this time around - even Pep Guardiola broke tradition and tried to lock the doors in a 0-0 draw with Man City, calling Klopp's team the best in the world at vertical play. “If it is an open game at Anfield, you don’t even have one chance, not even one per cent of a chance,” he said after the match.

To limit the devastating effect of Liverpool's direct play, most supposedly inferior teams (your Burnleys, your Newcastles) have tried to halt Liverpool with a low block - but now the big clubs are doing it too. That change in approach has resulted in Liverpool creating fewer chances to score than last season, down from 12.86 chances per game to 10.37 this season.

These numbers will likely creep back towards last season's averages once Liverpool have played more sides towards the bottom of the table and simply created more chances, at which point Salah may rediscover his shooting boots. Speaking of which...

Mo Salah and the Expected Goals

Last season Mo Salah's xG was 24.34, meaning the 32 goals he actually scored was significantly above what it probably should have been. The best strikers in world football tend to score more than their xG - Harry Kane (30 goals to 24.83 xG) and Sergio Aguero (21 goals to 16.26 xG) did exactly the same last season and both are above their xG this season already, for example.

Salah was expected to score 0.75 goals per 90 minutes last season but so far this season has only scored three. His xG for 2018/19? That would be the near identical 0.71 per game.

That feeling we get about Salah not being as good as last season is captured nicely within Opta's xG model. Salah's xG is 5.28 but his actual goals scored is three - the chances that were flying into the back of the net last season now aren't. 

An example is this bit of play against Chelsea. Salah manages to battle his way past the last man to go one on one with the goalkeeper...

salah vs chelsea

Goes around him and shoots...

Mo Salah shoots

And Antonio Rudiger is somehow able to get back onto the line to stop a certain goal.

Mo salah vs Chelsea

Salah just didn't catch the shot quite right and the chance is gone. Is he trying too hard to hit the perfect finish? Over-thinking and overriding muscle memory? Or are things simply not going his way on a rare few occasions?

Over a season, this will very likely even itself out. If Salah had scored five goals from that 5.28 figure, he'd be performing far better than at the same point last season and this argument would never have been suggested.

All of this comes off the back of Salah playing half-fit through a World Cup and in a Liverpool front three which hasn't really got going yet. A couple of lucky breaks will lead to restored confidence, which will very probably mean those missed chances become fewer and Salah goes back to exceeding expectations, no matter how ludicrously high his exploits of last season have set them.