Mohamed Salah 'hates' penalties - so now is the time for Liverpool to find a new spot-kick king
Mohamed Salah says he "hates" taking penalties, but he might not have to worry about doing so any more.
The Egyptian star's profligacy from the spot has cost Liverpool dearly of late. Jurgen Klopp's side may have fought back superbly to draw 2-2 with Arsenal on Sunday, but had Salah not failed from 12 yards early in the second half at Anfield, the Reds probably would have finished with more than a point to show for their efforts.
Salah covered his face with his shirt after sliding his effort wide of Aaron Ramsdale's right-hand post, and well he might. It was the 30-year-old's second penalty miss in the space of four matches - he also missed the target during the 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth last month.
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And while Klopp understandably refused to criticise his star man after the Arsenal game, the Liverpool boss now has a decision to make over who will step up the next time his side his side are awarded a spot-kick.
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Counting the cost
Salah's penalty record at Anfield is, on the face of things, not too bad. He has scored 24 of his 29 efforts, his success rate of 82.76% placing him ahead of the likes of Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, John Barnes and Phil Neal, all of whom were renowned for taking big penalties for the club.
Of Salah's five misses, though, four have come since the start of the 2021-22 season. He has actually failed with four of his last 11 efforts, a success rate of just 63.6 percent.
He was denied by AC Milan's Mike Maignan in the Champions League in September 2021, and again by Kasper Schmeichel as Liverpool lost at Leicester in the Premier League that December. That defeat, one of only two the Reds suffered in the league all season, ultimately proved costly come the end of the campaign.
It may well prove a similar story this time around. Salah's misses against Bournemouth and Arsenal have cost the Reds crucial points, points they can ill afford to lose in the race for the top four. Both came with his side trailing but in the ascendency, and it is not hard to imagine that, had he scored, Liverpool would have won both games.
Missing the target
Perhaps the most galling thing, especially from Salah's point of view, is that both of his recent misses have seen him fail to hit the target altogether.
Indeed, on both occasions, he had plenty of margin for error with his kick. Against Bournemouth, goalkeeper Neto had guessed the wrong way, while against Arsenal, Ramsdale had opted to stand up in anticipation of a shot placed down the middle of the goal.
On both occasions, though, Salah went for pinpoint precision and put the ball wide - a cardinal sin, if you speak to any professional.
That continues a rather alarming trend, too. In March of last year, Salah blazed a penalty over the bar for Egypt as they lost to Senegal in a World Cup qualifying play-off in Dakar. The Liverpool man was, in fairness, targeted by a series of green laser beams shone by fans that night, but missing the target with three penalties in little more than a year is worrying, to say the least.
A distinctive technique
Salah's penalty-taking technique is one of the more distinctive in the game. After placing the ball on the spot, he stands square-on, shuffling to the right only once the whistle is blown before approaching the ball quickly with his left foot.
"I don't like the run-up," former Liverpool defender Stephan Warnock told the BBC's Match of the Day 2 programme on Sunday. "It's awkward, and feels like there is only one way he can go."
Warnock, presumably, means to the goalkeeper's right, where Salah has missed each of his last two penalties, but in fairness to the Egyptian, he has mixed up his spot-kicks for Liverpool.
The first one he ever scored for the club, for example, was to the goalkeeper's left, against Huddersfield in January 2018. Salah had actually seen the goalkeeper that day, Jonas Lossl, save his effort in the reverse fixture at Anfield a few months earlier.
There have been other, more pressurised examples, too. The biggest penalty Salah ever took was in the Champions League final against Tottenham in 2019, and though it was far from the most convincing strike, it had too much power for Hugo Lloris, beating the goalkeeper to his left.
And just last season, in the League Cup final shootout against Chelsea at Wembley, Salah showed nerves of steel when taking the Reds' fifth kick, slamming his effort right inside the left-hand post as Kepa Arrizabalaga dived to his right.
Salah, unlike, say, Ivan Toney, Jorginho or Bruno Fernandes, rarely opts for subtlety with his penalties. He doesn't wait for the goalkeeper to make his move and adjust accordingly. He picks his spot and generally hits the ball hard with his sidefoot.
That, usually, would ensure accuracy, but Salah's placement, for whatever reason, has deserted him in recent weeks.
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The Harry Kane effect
It was interesting to hear Salah discuss penalties during a recent interview with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard for LFCTV, the club's in-house television channel.
In it, he revealed he had started taking penalties because he was locked in a race with Harry Kane for the Premier League Golden Boot during his first season at Anfield, 2017-18.
"I think when I came I wasn't in the first one, two, three, four [penalty takers], I don't know," Salah said. "Then there was a game at Huddersfield and Kane was scoring 21, 22, something like this. There was only one difference.
"Then Milner was in the game and I wasn't really aware of everything going on. I was like 'Okay. I'm going to take it', I asked him nicely. A few players came to me and I said 'guys, I need to take it. I need to score. We're already [two] goals up'.
"And for me, there he [Milner] told me to take it. So I took and equalised with Kane."
Milner actually remained as Liverpool's first-choice penalty taker for the following season, 2018-19, taking crucial kicks against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Fulham and Cardiff, but with the midfielder's place in the team far from assured, Salah began to assume greater responsibility
It was he who stepped up in the Champions League final against Spurs, although the next time he took one when Milner was on the field did not come until October 2020, when Salah scored in a win over FC Midtjylland at Anfield.
That was one of 17 penalties Salah scored consecutively between October 2017 and September 2021. Milner, in that time, netted nine of his 10 efforts, missing only against Maribor in November 2017. He hasn't taken a penalty in a game for Liverpool since scoring at Leicester in December 2019, although he stepped up first - and scored - in both the League Cup and FA Cup final shootouts against Chelsea last season.
The best penalty takers, of course, can still miss. Milner has done so twice for Liverpool, while Kane blazed over the bar for England in the World Cup quarter-final. Even the usually-flawless Toney came up short for Brentford against Newcastle's Nick Pope last weekend. It is an occupational hazard, for those who put themselves on the spot from 12 yards.
Who could replace him as Liverpool's penalty taker?
Klopp, unsurprisingly, gave little away in the aftermath of Sunday's game. "That is something we will talk about," he said, when asked if Salah would continue as penalty taker, "but not here!"
But Salah's struggles mean Liverpool have to look to make a change, and the good news for Klopp is that he has a few options from which to choose.
Fabinho, for example, scored three times from the spot last season when Salah was off the field, and produced the most nerveless kick of all when delivering a 'Panenka' against Chelsea in the League Cup final shootout.
Few players strike the ball cleaner than Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has never taken a penalty for the Reds in a game but who has scored three times in shootouts - all of them against Chelsea.
Cody Gakpo has taken penalties for PSV Eindhoven, including two this season. His only miss came against former Liverpool goalkeeper Kamil Grabara in a Europa Conference League game against FC Copenhagen last March.
Darwin Nunez, too, has a flawless record from the spot, scoring each of his 11 kicks for Almeria and Benfica, as well as in Liverpool's League Cup shootout win over Derby at Anfield back in November.
And in the short-term there is always the ever-reliable Milner, whose success rate of 90.48 percent places him fifth on the Reds' all-time list, of players who have taken five or more penalties. The 37-year-old may be out of contract at the end of the campaign, and he may have seen his playing time dwindle in recent times, but if Liverpool are awarded a spot-kick when he is on the field between now and the end of the campaign, expect him to take it, and expect him to score it.