Wednesday evening. An important Champions League tie at Anfield in which Liverpool are fully expected to take another three points from Maribor- yet the visitors are far more stubborn than they were on home turf and make themselves a difficult challenge for Liverpool to break down. 0-0 at halftime and a sense of frustration starts to emerge.
Just four minutes into the second-half, however, Liverpool find that moment of genuine quality to make the breakthrough. Trent Alexander-Arnold delivers a promising cross from the right flank and it’s absolutely no surprise to see Mohamed Salah on the end of it, deftly flicking the ball into the bottom corner on the volley with a sumptuous piece of technique after making a trademark intelligent run to get himself into a scoring position.
It was Salah’s 10th goal of his debut season at Liverpool in his first 15 starts (16 appearances in total), with three assists to his name as well. For context, that’s the same record as Fernando Torres and three more than Luis Suarez managed in his first 16 appearances at the club. Yet Salah isn’t even a striker by trade, even if he finds himself taking up central goalscoring positions on a regular basis. For a wide forward to be hitting these numbers so soon after arriving represents a phenomenal start to life at his new club.
The extraordinary thing about Salah is that despite such a prolific return, there has been a significant focus from fans and pundits alike about his supposedly “poor” or “wasteful” finishing and that he ought to be converting more of the big chances he has missed. While it’s true that Salah has spurned numerous excellent opportunities, what he’s essentially being criticised for is not having a goal tally on the level of Lionel Messi. Had he scored even half the big chances he has missed so far this season, he’d probably be nearing 20 goals already and on his way to a Ballon d’Or.
This is a player Liverpool signed for £36.9 million, it’s worth remembering. Salah’s pace and intelligent movement is what allows him to get in the situations where he is expected to score with such regularity. Of course, he could be more clinical but the simple fact is he is performing at a level which puts him among the very best in the world in his position. In fact, his conversion rate of 27% is considerably better than Cristiano Ronaldo (10%), Lionel Messi (19%) and Harry Kane (14%).
Of all the “wide forwards” in Europe, only Neymar- the one who cost nearly £200 million- has more goals (11) in all competitions than Salah (10) so far, with Raheem Sterling equal in second place having also hit his 10th of the season against Napoli on Wednesday evening. Having joined a new club, learning a new system under a new manager with new teammates, Salah has hit the ground running and is delivering a goal return better than virtually every other winger in Europe apart from the world’s most expensive player of all time.
The likes of Luis Suarez, Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Gareth Bale, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard all have fewer goals to their name than Salah at the time of writing, nearly all of which are unanimously considered “world class”- or at least have been until very recently.
Since after the 2013-14 season, Liverpool’s highest goal scorer in a single season has been Philippe Coutinho with 14, last season. In 2015-16 and 2014-15 respectively, the top scorers in all competitions were Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard (both 13 goals). The fact that Salah is already on 10 with seven months of the season left to play is quite remarkable in that context.
There is, of course, always the threat of injury especially given the kind of explosive player Salah is and the number of minutes he’s getting, but should he remain fit for the vast majority of the remainder of the season, a tally of 40 goals is not unfeasible. When he first signed, something around 15-20 would’ve been considered a very decent first season at Liverpool and he’s not far off achieving that already.
He’s scored all kinds of goals, too. Poacher’s finishes inside the six-yard box. Running the length of the pitch before coolly slotting the ball home against Arsenal. A bullet header from a near-impossible angle against Leicester. An exquisite first touch to control a long ball before rifling in a low finish against Burnley. A flicked volley from a cross against Maribor. A side-footed finish on his weaker right side against Spurs at Wembley.
The debate is often raised around whether Liverpool require an orthodox striker with a more prolific goal return than Roberto Firmino and yet this negates the fact that Firmino’s movement and work rate is a key part of the reason why the likes of Salah and Sadio Mané are such a constant goal threat, benefiting from the space and opportunities opened up by Firmino.
Had Liverpool spent £60 million on a “traditional” number nine in the summer- perhaps Timo Werner or Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, for instance- most fans and pundits would be lauding their impact had they managed 10 goals in their first 15 starts. It seems, almost paradoxically, that because Salah is a wide player, he’s getting far less credit than he deserves for his performances thus far and the speed at which he has settled in and made such a telling impact.
The focus on his end product is not to even mention his exceptional first touch, spatial awareness, dribbling in tight spaces, physical strength, work rate and one-touch passing, all of which make him such an incredibly dangerous player for defenders to deal with.
Having already won every player of the month and goal of the month award for Liverpool, along with two Champions League player of the week awards, Salah’s impact is clearly not going unnoticed. Yet there still appears to be a reticence to fully praise what he’s achieving as though his missed chances somehow discredit what is an outstanding goal return of its own accord.
It’s very easy to take for granted having a winger who’s currently scoring a goal every 1.5 games, but the reality is that only one player on the planet in the same position is managing more than Salah in that regard. It’s not often a transfer can be regarded an unmitigated success- especially given value for money- so soon into the season, but Salah can surely be considered among Liverpool’s very finest acquisitions this century, even if he isn’t fully appreciated just yet.
At 25, you would expect his development to continue on an upward trajectory and in all probability, in still adapting to his new surroundings, he’s got another few gears to go through still. It’s a frightening prospect to behold.