Let’s start off with some basic facts. In his first season with Liverpool, Mohamed Salah has scored 30 Premier League goals. That’s double what he achieved during his last – and best – season with Roma, in which he scored 15 times in Serie A action. If we add European competition into the equation, Salah’s record has gone from 17 goals in 37 appearances in 2016/17 to 38 goals in 42 appearances in 2017/18. Looking at this progression from a different, more revealing angle, his goals per game rate has shot up from 0.46 to 0.9. As a result of all this, the £37.8 million Liverpool paid to sign him last summer looks more of a bargain by the week.
Even those who regularly watched the Egyptian during his successful spell in Italian football didn’t predict such a wild leap forward in potency. At Roma, he was a respected attacker; at Liverpool, he has become one of the finest attackers around. Many have been left scratching their heads as they attempt to put their finger on what exactly has changed inside the last year to provoke such a dramatic improvement.
The consensus is that individual development is the primary reason behind the player’s sharp upturn in scoring form. Belgium boss Roberto Martinez weighed in, saying: “That composure…to be at the right place at the right time and then make the right call has been the big difference from the Salah we all saw a few seasons ago. I think that’s where Jurgen Klopp deserves huge credit to spot a player that wasn’t the finished article and make him what he is now.”
Salah certainly seems hell-bent on self-improvement, telling the BBC in February that, “If you look at me now and five years ago, everything has changed both mentally and physically. I’m trying to improve myself every day. I always like to put myself under pressure to improve more. I give all my life to football, I only think about football. This is what is on my mind all the time.”
The notion that the attacker has simply grown into a better finisher in the last year is slightly far-fetched. At 25 years of age, he is no prospect. Physically and technically very little, if anything, appears to have changed from his Roma days. But there is data that seems to back up this notion – his shot accuracy this season stands at 62 per cent, which is a nine per cent increase on last term.
Unfortunately, those statistics only tell us what has happened, not how. The guess this leads some to make is that Salah has become a more precise and consistent finisher…because of Klopp. That’s quite a bold guess, but there is a large degree of truth to it. Only, rather than shooting work on the training ground, it is the German’s tactics that have been the single most important factor in the player’s improved scoring rate from last season to this.
With Roma, Salah played as a right winger in what was essentially a front four. Within that front four, Edin Dzeko was the central focal point, while Radja Nainggolan was responsible for making devastating runs off the Bosnian hitman. While Salah still technically plays on the right wing with Liverpool, he does so in an entirely different system.
Klopp’s attack involves a front three without a natural centre-forward. Salah no longer has to supply a lone frontman, and he no longer has to stay wide. Rather, he is expected to make incisive diagonal runs in behind Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s nominal No.9, who often drops deep – rather than going beyond the last man – as moves build.
Salah is more central to Liverpool’s attack than he was to Roma’s. He creates less chances – 1.78 per game compared to last season’s 2.29 – but he finishes chances much more frequently. Heat maps show where a player does most of their work during a game, and they offer an insight into Salah’s change of role. In his last appearance for Roma, against Genoa, his heat map depicted him spending most of his time on or near the right touchline. By contrast, in his latest appearance for Liverpool, against Bournemouth, his heat map depicts him spending most of his time in the right inside channel.
These heat maps also show that Salah is now less involved in his own third and more involved in and around the opposition penalty box. In short, within Klopp’s system he is much less isolated, and much more focused on getting on the end of attacks. This explains why the number of shots per game he takes from inside the box has gone up at a greater rate (roughly 59 per cent) than the number of shots he takes from outside the box (roughly 44 per cent). Given he gets closer to goal more often with Liverpool than he did with Roma, his improved shot accuracy actually makes a lot of sense.
Salah’s improvement since joining Liverpool underlines the importance of tactical context when identifying talent in the increasingly system-driven modern game. The numbers alone are not enough to predict an individual’s chances of progress when joining a new team. So, when a Premier League club tries their best to ‘spot the next Salah’ in this summer’s transfer window, they had better take a hard look not only at the player, but at the team they play for.