Mohamed Salah isn’t taking every chance he gets for Liverpool, but when you’re as good as fashioning opportunities as he is, it hardly matters. Comparisons with Lionel Messi are silly, obviously, but the fact they’re being made at all says a lot.
Back in the mid-1990s, when Andy Cole was establishing himself at Manchester United after a big-money move from Newcastle, critics of the England international spoke of him needing five chances to score a goal.
The figure would increase or decrease, depending on who you were speaking to, but the concept remained steady – sure, he might find the net eventually, but rarely at the first time of asking.
Football can be a game of perceptions, and while Cole may have found things tougher on more days than on others, few would accuse Mohamed Salah of underwhelming in front of goal despite a similar conversion rate.
The Egyptian forward has 17 goals from 81 shots this season, according to the Premier League’s record-keepers, and that’s before we even mention those chances where he failed to get a shot away.
However, quite rightly, we look at the positives when we assess the Liverpool man’s displays this season: both in his confidence going forward and his ability to create openings for himself.
It’s something we saw again in his two-goal display at home to Leicester City – enough to turn a one-goal deficit into a 2-1 victory – in which he showed his value to Jürgen Klopp’s team.
Salah was wasteful in front of goal on a couple of occasions against the Foxes, twice finding space on his left foot only for his finishing to resemble that of a man who struggled for goals in a brief spell at Chelsea, rather than the one who has been outscored this season by just two players in Europe’s top five leagues.
However, even on what might look like off-days on the surface, we have always got the impression that another chance would arrive sooner rather than later.
At previous clubs, Salah has been just one part of an efficient attacking machine. The best part, perhaps, but just one part all the same. Last season at Roma, Edin Džeko acted as the figurehead, while at Basel, where he first made his name in Europe, Marco Streller was often the chief goalscorer.
When Salah joined Liverpool, we expected there to be no ‘main man’, per se, with Klopp preferring a fluid front three before the £37million man arrived and plenty of fans anticipating more of the same.
If Salah was going to be the point of the attack, it was only ever going to happen through him making that part his own.
He has continued to attack in the way which has served him well in the past, but it just so happens that the current set-up, with the pace of Salah and Mané alongside the movement of Roberto Firmino, could hardly be more ideally suited to a man whose last spell in England never really had a chance to take off.
Collecting Mané’s devastating backheel for his first goal, Salah showed a patience one might not have expected of a player who had missed a couple of easier chances earlier in the afternoon. He was happy to hold off defenders and wait for the perfect opening, rather than hitting and hoping.
In a way, that was the sort of goal many of us expected Salah to produce when he moved to Anfield, ghosting in from out wide and finding space on his left foot to finish, but it’s also a microcosm of his career: failing to take half-chances and waiting it out through fallow periods, all the while trusting that his innate ability can carry him through when it matters most.
However, if the first goal showed the Mohamed Salah we thought we’d see, the second showed the Mohamed Salah we hoped would grace the Premier League.
At 5’9”, Salah is slight but not as tiny as some others in the top flight. However, compared to Harry Maguire – a man built like a block of flats – he has the presence of Bee Movie’s Barry B Benson testifying in a human court.
It’s the sort of duel only normally resolvable through a combination of pace and open space, but not on this occasion.
For Salah to escape Maguire’s clutches, he displayed an almost magcal manoeuvrability. Imagine a Great Dane falling asleep on your lap while you watch TV, forcing you to gently move your body out from underneath it without disturbing the animal from its slumber.
Then picture the same task, but with a three-second time limit. Here’s what you get.
On Match of the Day’s coverage of the game, Ian Wright was mocked for comparing Salah to Lionel Messi in response to his finish for the winning goal.
Still, while the Argentine is so far ahead of the curve that few could complain about being deemed not as good as him, the manner of the left-footed finish undoubtedly evokes memories of certain Messi goals, such as this solo effort against Valencia.
It’s the finish of a man who approaches every chance confident of scoring, regardless of what has come earlier, as if the concept of ‘not your day’ doesn’t ever apply.
It may yet be the case that defences adapt to Salah, but the Leicester game demonstrates exactly why that will be so difficult.
His first-half chances came from finding space to get on the end of a move, and from creating a move and a chance all by himself, one from an advanced central position and one from deeper on the right.
After the break, the first of his goals came when four defenders were cumulatively crowding him out while keeping enough of a distance to approach him on the front foot. The second came when Maguire acted alone, but ostensibly tried to suffocate his opponent.
It’s tough to combat a player who does one thing brilliantly over and over, as we’ve seen with the likes of Arjen Robben and Thierry Henry in the past. When you’ve got that element of unpredictability, there can be an urge as a defender to play the percentages and allow the odd free hit from range.
The problem comes when those free hits come from closer and closer in, and when the player you think you’re suffocating or crowding out is doing the same to you, like a magician having his own watch stolen by his subject.
Oh, and on those rare occasions you do have Salah’s number, or think you have it, there’s the rest of the frontline to contend with.
With Egypt looking at an inviting World Cup group of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, Salah’s starring role could well continue beyond the end of the Premier League season. He’s patiently waited for this chance, and this season looks like providing a very handsome reward.
By Tom Victor
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