What a weekend for Mohamed Salah. He scored goal number 41 of a fantastic season at the Hawthorns on Saturday – a record tying 31st in a 38-game Premier League season – and then capped it on Sunday night by walking away with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year award.
It’s a remarkable achievement, no doubt. Especially considering that this is Salah’s first season at Liverpool, following an earlier, shall we say, less successful spell in the Premier League with Chelsea five years ago. Moreover, Salah arrived as a winger, expected to provide rather than finish off chances. That his record-breaking prolificacy has shot Liverpool to the semi-finals of the Champions League and all but secured another top-four finish is well worthy of recognition and the sheer number of goals (and attendant records broken) is the main reason why Salah has beaten the magnificent Kevin De Bruyne to the Player of the Year prize.
Like it or not, goal scoring – the most important, most difficult thing in the game – will always dominate individual awards. Goals aren’t everything, of course, and these awards shouldn’t always go to the goal scorers – that’s what the Golden Boot is for. When one player scores at the frequency and in the numbers that Salah has this season though, it’s hard to imagine the prize going to anyone else.
Still, it hasn’t stopped questions about what else – “besides just scoring goals” – Salah has to offer. It’s a question I find frankly baffling.
On the one hand, it’s a little odd that one has to justify the “other” merits of a player that, over and over again, does the most difficult thing in the game. Even if that’s all he did, why should that not be enough? Twice in the last three months, Derek McGovern of The Liverpool Echo has gone to great – sometimes ridiculous – lengths to argue Salah’s lack of any other qualities “besides just scoring goals”. He’s compared him to Clive Allen and Ruud van Nistelrooy, other, in his view, “good for nothing else” goal scorers. You can google him if you are into that kind of thing.
On the other hand, anyone who has paid even a passing interest in Salah should know there is much more to his game than “just” sticking the ball in the net. You don’t even have to be a journalist who makes his living following these things.
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit: statistics. You don’t have to have watched Salah to check his stats. In the Premier League, only De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, David Silva, Paul Pogba and Dele Alli have more than his nine assists. In the Champions League, he has another two assists (to go with eight goals). Of the top ten scorers in that competition, only Neymar, Edin Dzeko and Roberto Firmino have more. Not bad for a guy who scores this much.
But beyond the numbers, the eye test – just watching him play – reveals much more. And it’s not only about his obvious game-stretching, mind-bending speed. The four goals that followed mesmeric, Messi-esque dribbles against Everton, Spurs and Watford speak to a highly-skilful player with the ability to beat a man when needed. The accurate, well timed defence splitting passes that followed quick breaks and led to goals against Brighton, Porto, and Man City speak to his vision, decision-making and passing ability.
Indeed, the timing and weight of Salah’s passing has gone unappreciated in this glorious goal-scoring season of his. A few instances: when Salah robbed Nicolas Otamendi in the Premier League game at Anfield, his next touch was to pass into the path of Sadio Mane who fired home Liverpool’s third goal. It was a simple pass, but the decision-making was spot on – he could have been selfish and gone for goal – and the weight of the pass was just right.
Then there was a back-to-goal first time pass to set Coutinho up for a goal against Swansea in December, and another first-timer to create a chance for Danny Ings last month against Watford from which Salah himself would ultimately score. Interestingly, his decisive passing helped create the two goals he himself scored against Man City in the Champions League, chances he put away only after Firmino and Mane respectively had been foiled. And how about that exquisite, pin-point lob that Mane nodded home for Liverpool’s third in the Champions League game at Anfield?
Sometimes, these little things go under the radar but they clearly show to a discerning eye: even without the goals, this is a player that would still contribute plenty.
Salah spent the last two seasons playing for Roma, the Italian club now standing between Liverpool and a place in the Champions League. In those two seasons, the 25-year old Egyptian, not yet the goal machine he has become this year, posted 32 goals and 18 assists.
So it’s probably best to leave the final word to Roma striker Edin Dzeko, who played alongside Salah in Serie A. As the Bosnian striker – speaking of Salah – told The Telegraph in an interview last week:
“Last year I scored 39 goals. This year I scored, let’s say, only 20. I’m very happy for him that he left – but we are missing him.”
Need I say more?