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Mo Salah: The Best in Red?

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Mo Salah is having an historic season at LFC. Is he better than other forwards to have worn Red?

Liverpool v Watford - Premier League
Mo Salah: The Premier League’s Michael Jordan.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It is a tricky thing to compare players across generations. The lack of evidence in the form of statistics is a problem. Also, general gameplay evolves over time, making such discussions thorny. A favorite in this genre is pulling players off of their known teams and switching them around, like swapping Steph Curry for Magic Johnson to see how the Showtime Lakers and the Golden State Warriors might have fared. The wrinkles - Magic’s doing it against teams in a more rough-and-tumble league, for example - add spice to these fan hypotheticals. But the fact still remains: debating who is “better” between Magic and Steph, or Klay and Big Game James is impossible to sort out in a sport that relies so heavily on chemistry, team playing style, and the more macro vision of general league game-play.

Football, like basketball, is a sport that relies on these same fundamentals: being a team sport, the collective identity and style must always dictate which player best fits the squad. At the beginning of this season, for example, some Liverpool fans opined for a more direct/traditional goalscorer to Roberto Firmino’s “muted” false nine. In the months that have passed, it’s become clear: while Firmino may not be in search of the Golden Boot (though, currently tied for fifth with “traditional number 9s” Romelu Lukaku and the Leicester City footballer I refuse to name, he’s not far off), his contributions in terms of off-the-ball movement, defensive steel in the press, and playmaking ability are all positives that aren’t easily found in other 9s.

In the same way, Mo Salah’s signing was greeted with optimism and positivity, but some wondered if he was the right fit for Liverpool Football Club’s attack, with both concerns about his game translating from Italy to England and the previously stated caution around Firmino’s fit as the spear of our attack. The past 7 months, however, have proven that Mo Salah is not only the right fit for LFC, but that he may be the signing of the summer. He is having a singularly fantastic year.

Which begs the question: is Mo Salah better than forwards in LFC’s past? Looking at the numbers available for the most recent set of big-name strikers (Torres, Sturridge, and Suarez), the answer would appear to be a resounding yes. Mo’s goal+assists per 90 min. stands at a blistering 1.33. Taking that across the other forwards, the closest is Suarez during his 2013-2014 season at 1.31 goals+assists per 90, with Torres (.96) and Sturridge (1.11) on the fringes of this discussion.

But does this mean that Mo is better? That depends on the framing. Suarez’s season was unique in that the entire set-up relied on his singular ability. The nexus of attack basically was him: either by drawing defenders away to allow space for the uncanny movement of Danny to fill, or by creating for either of the fleet forward dancing around him, Suarez was carried the load. Mo is much more like Torres in that he benefits from the system being built to cater to his strengths: pace, movement in the box, taking good shots.

That’s not to say that this iteration of Mo Salah couldn’t have made things work on that 2013-2014 side - he likely could have. But it would mean forcing Danny to turn into a creator. And while Sturridge definitely knew how to pick a pass (his interplay with Coutinho remains one of my favorite parts of that 2013-2014 squad), his strength lies in being able to play off-the-shoulder of the last defender, using his pace and movement to create a chance.

Would Suarez fit in this squad? Not entirely. It would likely look a bit like last year’s Salah-less squad, placing Suarez at the 9 and moving Bobby into the Coutinho role, creating from out wide. While this squad might indeed have more teeth up front with the sharpshooting Suarez up front, it would also likely suffer from crafting some of that space and lose a bit in the pressing trigger from the 9. You also lose quite a bit of foot speed, which would hamper the way the field is stretched both vertically and horizontally thanks to Mo’s ability both to torch defenders and work them outside-in. I’m sure there would still be fireworks on the pitch, but this squad is tailor-made for a player like Mo Salah and it shows both in the roles the other attackers have, and the sublime sense of balance between the attacking three.

Ultimately, the season Salah is having is going to go down among the best of any Liverpool forward in the storied history of the club. With at least 8 matches remaining, his numbers can only further entrench him in the pantheon of great goalscorers in LFC lore. It is also likely that he will interject his name as the one to finally, maybe, break the Messi-Ronaldo stranglehold over the Ballon d’Or. But all of that - his singular brilliance, his goal scoring figures, and any post-season awards coming his way - must be viewed in context to the team set up. He is placed in positions to succeed thanks in large part to Jurgen Klopp’s tactical wrinkles and the work of his teammates. Football is, after all, a collective effort. On that, Salah agrees:

“I have to thank everyone but mainly my team-mates, without them I couldn’t reach this number [of goals scored].”

Is Salah better than Suarez or Torres or Sturrdige? I’m not sure. But, to paraphrase the great Bill Shankly, I think Salah was made for Liverpool, and Liverpool was made for him.