Explaining Salah's struggles: Why is Liverpool's Egyptian King suffering so badly this season?
Remember the days when a tally of 17 goals by the end of January would have you in the running for Player of the Season? No chance of that this term. Not with the relentless Erling Haaland redefining the idea of what a ‘prolific’ Premier League striker should look like.
The world has changed, expectations have changed, and if you’re scoring at a rate of a goal every other game then, quite frankly, your standards are slipping.
That certainly looks to be the case with Mohamed Salah right now, with Liverpool’s wretched form amplifying their Egyptian star’s personal ‘struggles’.
On the face of it, Salah is not doing too badly. His total of 17 goals in all competitions is only one fewer than that of Harry Kane, for example. He’s the joint-leading scorer in the Champions League and, with half the campaign still to play, it is not absurd to suggest he may match or even surpass the 31 goals he managed last season, when he was named PFA Player of the Year and when many observers - this one included - believed him to be among the best footballers in the world.
The eyes, though, tell a different story, and to watch Salah at Brighton on Sunday was to watch a player struggling for form, struggling for confidence and struggling to carry a team which has declined at an alarming rate, and which looks in need of root-and-branch surgery in the summer.
He might have collected an assist - his seventh of the campaign - and he might have been denied a goal only by Lewis Dunk’s goalline clearance, but nobody could argue that this was Salah anywhere near his best. And in fact, bar the odd flash, we haven’t seen that for quite some time.
There was the winning goal against Manchester City in October, of course. Probably the highlight of the season, as far as Liverpool are concerned. There was that quickfire hat-trick off the bench at Rangers, a pair of clinical finishes down at Tottenham, and another down at Aston Villa on Boxing Day.
But there have been far too few of those moments, far too few of those dominant performances. There have been only seven Premier League goals, as many as Harvey Barnes and Roberto Firmino, and fewer than Miguel Almiron and Rodrigo Moreno.
Salah’s goals per 90 rate (0.34) is the lowest of any player to have scored five league goals bar Wilfried Zaha and Pascal Gross, while his goal conversion rate (14%) is worse than anyone bar Darwin Nunez, his Reds team-mate.
Nunez’s arrival at Anfield, and the adaptation period which has followed, may well help to explain Salah’s drop-off. For years Liverpool’s attack has been built around the reliable presence of Firmino as a roaming, space-creating No.9, with Salah and Sadio Mane profiting heavily from the Brazilian’s selflessness and the delivery of full-back duo Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It was smooth, automatic, pre-programmed, and took the Reds to the highest heights imaginable.
Nothing is smooth now. Nunez’s arrival, and to a lesser extent that of Luis Diaz last January, has changed the way Liverpool attack. The Uruguayan likes to run in behind, while the Colombian loves to come short to receive the ball before embarking on marauding, diagonal runs from left to right.
That has meant a change in the way both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have operated. Robertson, generally, sits deeper when Diaz plays, while Alexander-Arnold has tended to look longer, earlier with Nunez on the pitch.
At times it has worked handsomely - see the goal Nunez scored against Wolves at Anfield recently - but the effect that has had on Salah should not be underestimated. With Mane gone, with the full-backs’ influence increasingly stymied and with Jurgen Klopp’s midfield unable to pin opponents’ back and dominate physically as it once did, the 30-year-old has looked lost at times this season.
He is snatching at chances, he is isolated, often hugging the right flank and generally appearing bewildered at the mess unfolding around him.
Injuries haven't helped. Salah, Diaz and Nunez have played only 342 minutes together, while Salah and Diogo Jota have been on the pitch together for only 335. Firmino has not featured since before the World Cup, with the likes of Harvey Elliott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fabio Carvalho, Curtis Jones and new signing Cody Gakpo asked to fill in, ensuring the forward line has had little or no consistency in terms of selection.
Salah's underlying numbers are still good. He still takes lots of shots and has lots of touches in the opposition box (more than any other Premier League player, as it happens), and his expected goals (xG) tally is the fifth-highest in the division. No forward has created more chances for teammates, and only five have attempted more dribbles. Salah is hardly hiding.
He’s certainly not firing either, though. He looks frustrated, ground down, exhausted even. He’s played an incredible amount of football over the last six years, and to an incredible standard too, but even Klopp admitted recently that he’s “suffering”, struggling to keep his head above water as the Reds’ ship sinks.
It would be both unfair and inaccurate to link his poor form to the three-year, £300,000 ($370,000)-a-week contract he signed with Liverpool last summer. Salah’s motivation and professionalism is as strong as it has ever been, he still sets the standard in training and he has still featured in all but one of his team’s matches this season. His durability is genuinely remarkable.
Nobody will be more determined than he is to turn things around, to make dry January a thing of the past and to get the Reds moving forward again. With half a league campaign still to play, plus a Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid to come, there should still be plenty of opportunities for Salah to shine.
Liverpool need him to, and quickly. Because if Salah struggles this month like he did last, the Reds’ season will be all but over.