Liverpool are on a run of four Premier League games without a win and while there are problems all over the pitch for Jurgen Klopp to unpick, the surprising dip in form of Mohamed Salah is among the concerns. We analyse the reasons for that dip...
Monday 6 February 2023 13:14, UK
"Seven or eight players were not involved in the first goal," said Jurgen Klopp following Liverpool’s early capitulation in their 3-0 defeat to Wolves. "Seven or eight players were not involved in the second goal. But all are affected by it."
Mohamed Salah was one of those likely to be spared blame for the two goals that left Liverpool up against it inside a dozen messy minutes at Molineux. But he is the man who supporters might have hoped would be able to salvage such a situation.
Instead, he was impotent once more. Affected. With Liverpool languishing in mid-table, closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League places, Salah seems helpless to prevent the slide. Is he a victim of the decline or part of the problem?
His productivity has certainly dipped. The occasion of his 200th Premier League appearance also marked his fifth game without a goal in the competition, the second such run this season. That happened only twice in the previous five campaigns combined.
Some will point to fatigue. That has been an excuse offered for Liverpool's passivity as a team of late and in Salah's case, the demands on his body in recent years have been significant. He played 61 games for club and country last season.
It had been hoped that Salah's winter break - afforded him as a result of Egypt's failure to qualify for the World Cup - might have provided him with the opportunity to rest and recuperate before returning to his best form. If anything, the decline has steepened.
Others now point to the contract that was signed in the summer, extending his deal at Anfield until 2025 in the most lucrative deal that the club have ever offered. It is an accusation that Klopp has rejected, Salah's professionalism beyond reproach.
"You cannot score the amount of goals that Mo has scored if you are not an outstanding, world-class football player," said the Liverpool manager in response. "You think that has something to do with a new contract or whatever? It is just not right."
So what has happened? Firstly, let us establish the facts.
Salah's best scoring season with Liverpool remains his first in which he scored 31 Premier League goals. Strip out the penalties and he still scored a goal almost every 90 minutes. He has not replicated that rate since but he has been astonishingly consistent.
In each of the following four Premier League seasons, Salah scored between 19 and 23 goals. His non-penalty goals per 90 minutes in those four seasons varied a little but not by much - scoring at a rate between 0.47 and 0.59. Only now has it dipped to 0.35.
One of the key questions is whether that is a finishing problem, an opportunity issue, or both? In attempting to answer that, the expected-goals data can help to provide us with more clues.
What it tells us is that Salah would have been expected to score at a rate of 0.46 goals per 90 minutes rather than that rate of 0.35. Between his second and fourth seasons, his average was 0.48 goals per 90 minutes. So, the quality of his chances is similar.
In other words, this difference, the reason for Salah's dip in output, can largely be explained by his own slump in finishing. For the first time in his Liverpool career, this is a player who is converting significantly fewer chances than you would expect.
Those magnificently curled efforts into the top corner that had become his trademark are not finding the net as before. There was one in the second half against Wolves that drifted just the wrong side of the post. Klopp highlighted a recent chance against Brighton.
"There are moments when Mo would have scored last year. In the Brighton game it was 100 per cent a goal usually and now not."
Why that is happening is trickier to explain. Outwardly, Salah does not appear to be a man likely to suffer confidence issues. But most players benefit from rhythm and routine. That is missing at Liverpool right now and perhaps that is impacting his performances.
Alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Salah was part of the most devastating trident in world football. The trio won the lot together and remained remarkably free of injury throughout their four seasons together as Liverpool's first-choice forwards.
In that period, Klopp named all three in his Premier League starting line-up on 102 occasions out of a possible 152. The patterns of movement that were such a feature of Liverpool's success were engrained. Firmino came deep. Salah exploited the space vacated.
"It was a well-drilled machine, the front three," Klopp acknowledged.
"Offensive play involves a lot of work and a lot of information. How to move, you create a feeling so you know where your team-mate is, and where you can pass the ball without looking. Everything was clear what we were doing." Those connections have been lost.
"It has not been helpful. Everyone suffers from that."
Mane departed for Bayern Munich. Firmino, now 31, has begun to pick up more injuries. Now it is Salah who is the man having to work around others rather than having the intelligent Brazilian moving for him. New signing Darwin Nunez is being accommodated.
The heatmaps from Salah's six seasons as a Liverpool player show that he is playing a little wider than he did when those earlier partnerships were so well established. Liverpool have a true No 9 now and that necessitates a positional shift for their star player.
Salah is having fewer touches inside the box than ever before.
That being the case, it might have been expected that there would be an evolution in Salah's game that would see him become more of a creator than a scorer. He provided 13 assists last season - the most in his Premier League career. It hinted at a change.
That change in his game has not happened either. His total of four assists this season might be seen as evidence of poor finishing by the wasteful Nunez and others, but further inspection suggests that is not the correct explanation. Salah's expected assists total - a fairer judge of his own creativity - is even lower at just 3.1.
Indeed, his expected assists per 90 minutes are lower than ever.
The result is that Salah is having fewer opportunities to score, finishing those chances less efficiently than before, and proving unable to create as many chances for others. Just as every aspect of Liverpool's game has deteriorated, so it is true of their talisman.
What is the solution? Having turned 30 in June, there will be those who wonder whether his very best form can be recaptured. The more positive interpretation is that if Liverpool can address the issues elsewhere, Salah's true potency can be rediscovered.
As Klopp suggested following the defeat to Wolves, the errors of the few can impact the efforts of the many. And though there are Liverpool supporters looking to their Egyptian king to initiate the team's revival, perhaps it will need to happen the other way around.
Salah is suffering, entangled in the Anfield malaise. Only when Klopp has found the solutions elsewhere, bringing stability to the defence, renewed energy in midfield and the right chemistry in attack, will his most celebrated player be able to show himself once again.