Forget about patriotic inclinations. Mohammed Salah deserves to be named 2017 African Player of the Year. His major role in taking Egypt to a first World Cup in 28 years makes a strong case. As do his goal-scoring exploits and all-round impact for Roma in Italy, Egypt at the Nations Cup and Liverpool in England over the past 12 months.
But, never mind all that. Forget about the vote and who deserves what: Mo Salah is simply the best African player playing today. I hate to base these things strictly on statistics – the qualitative is often as important as the quantitative – but it’s always a good place to start, especially when discussing attacking players.
As stats go, Salah’s record of 17 goals in 22 matches since joining Liverpool is simply mind-blowing. For one thing, Salah is not an out and out striker, and would ordinarily not even feature when Premiership goal scorers – the likes of Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, and Alvaro Morata – are discussed.
Second, not one Liverpool player has scored more than 14 goals in an entire season since 2013/14 when both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez hit more than 20 apiece. It’s still December – not even halfway through the season – and Salah has 17 goals! Third, Salah’s Premier League leading 12 goals means he has scored more goals than all those highly rated Number 9s listed above.
Some of those goals leave you gobsmacked too, like the exquisite curler against Southampton in November, or the stunning volley that put paid to Stoke last week. Not bad for a 25-year old winger better known for speed than finishing.
Speed, of course, still plays a big part in Salah’s new-found prolificacy. It’s that raw pace that allows him to exploit spaces in behind defences and gets him into promising goal-scoring situations – as he did at Wembley when latching on to Jordan Henderson’s through ball to beat Spurs’ Hugo Lloris.
But pace isn’t everything. If it was, Adama Traore would be lining up beside Lionel Messi at Barcelona rather than battling in Championship mid-table with Middlesbrough. Pace in football is more about decision-making and timing over short distances rather than sheer speed over a long span.
And it has to be of service to the cause of the team, of course. Take Liverpool’s second goal at Brighton on Saturday: Salah runs onto Firmino’s back heel with three opponents closing on the same space, but the angle through which he prods the ball and races on to it leaves them all in his wake and opens the way for Firmino to finish off a flowing move.
His run for Liverpool’s third was even more impressive. The way the ball seemed to attach to his left foot as he scampered towards the Brighton area was simply Messi-esque, and the manner in which he outmanoeuvred the back-tracking defenders before feeding Firmino brought back memories – for those of a certain vintage – of Diego Maradona bamboozling Brazilian defenders before setting up Claudio Cannigia’s winner at Italia 90.
Speaking of the qualitative, Salah scored neither of those goals – he only gets an assist for the second – but without a doubt, it’s his pace, timing, skill and decision making that make the opening for both.
For me though, Salah’s best quality has to be his willingness and capacity to continuously learn and improve. It’s obvious to everyone now that the Salah that arrived at Anfield in the summer is not the same player that featured so sporadically for Chelsea four years ago.
His time in Italy has transformed a speedy winger with an eye for goal into an all-round attacking player. He is now just as strong receiving the ball with his back to goal, as he is running on to through passes. Not nearly enough has been made of his first touch ball control, even under pressure, and his ability to hold the ball up and link up with others.
It’s in his finishing that the best, most recent changes are most glaring though. Even a couple of months ago, Salah’s ability to finish was being questioned. Fairly so, because despite scoring three times in his first five games, he could have been close to double figures for the amount of chances that fell his way.
But change he has. When Salah ran through on goal against Man City at Etihad in September, his attempt to find the far corner was well saved by Ederson. It was his well-known go-to finish: across the keeper into the far corner.
Two months on, in those one-v-one situations, rather than always looking for the far corner, Salah’s finish is more varied, as seen from the calmly-taken, firm, low, centre-of-goal efforts that beat Joe Hart, Thibaut Courtois, Fraser Forster, Jasmin Handanovic and Lee Grant in recent weeks. The profligate speedster has become an ice-cold finisher.
Of course, form can be fleeting and there’s a good chance Salah will not keep scoring at current rates. But there’s as good a chance that his other attributes will always be an asset to his team.
That’s for the future though. Right now – with all due respect to Messrs Aubameyang, Mane, Keita and Moses – there’s no better African player than Mo Salah.