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On Mohamed Salah, Back-Post Runs, and the Squad Building Challenges of Success

The Reds are headed for a crossroads in their development, and Mohamed Salah might become the symbol of it.

Liverpool FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Mohamed Salah is the Premier League’s top scorer. In and of itself, this is an unsurprising statement, as the Egyptian wins the domestic Golden Boot more often than not, having collected the trophy in two of his three seasons on Merseyside. He is the de facto main goalscoring threat for one of the best teams in the world, and their designated penalty taker.

Mohamed Salah is 28, typically considered the middle of a striker’s peak years.

Mohamed Salah would like to extend his contract with Liverpool for as long as he can, saying to the media that the matter is entirely in the club’s hands.

On paper, this would appear to be a no-brainer.

Peering beyond the top line numbers, though, things don’t look quite as encouraging.

Where the fourth-year Red has traditionally backed up his goalscoring tally with impressive expected goals production — posting the league’s second, third, and second highest numbers of the metric in his first three seasons at the club — he now sits 12th in the table. Translating his numbers into expected goals per 90 minutes he is 20th, compared to third, fifth and fifth in the past.

Disregarding the rest of the league, Salah’s 0.36 expected goals per 90 minutes also represents a drop of 35% from his previous Liverpool career average of 0.55. The drop is precipitous.

So why has the Egyptian’s goalscoring threat taken such a tumble this season? The answer appears to be shot location and back post runs.

Below is a series of images, displaying the location — as well as expected goals value and outcome — of Salah’s non-penalty shots for Liverpool, listed chronologically. While the volume can mostly be disregarded — we are only halfway through the season, after all — the sudden disappearance of shots from inside the six-yard box can not.

When Salah arrived at Liverpool, football mastermind and TLO legend CStars described Salah’s strengths thusly:

His scorching pace, attacking movement, directness, crisp left foot, and understanding of high value shooting positions all make him a serious threat on the counter. Whether he’s running with the ball or chasing it, he eats space quickly and confidently. He generally makes his mind up about where he wants to go and does so.

Liverpool fans have joyfully witnessed these qualities in recent seasons, with Salah’s off the ball runs and back-post tap-ins a particular delight, often capping off free-flowing passing moves. This season, those runs no longer seem to occur. It is always difficult to prove a negative, and while the gaping hole where those shots used to be found offers some evidence, reviewing game tape is necessary for confirmation.

The frustrating 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion in late December provides excellent examples, as twice Andy Robertson found space down the flank and whipped a perfect cross past the defenders and into the exact spot Salah loves to tuck them away from, and the Egyptian just... wasn’t there. Once, he had started his run but held back, and then did not restart it soon enough to get there, and once he simply didn’t move.

The reason for Salah’s deteriorating off the ball movement is impossible to pin down. Perhaps the coronavirus has taken his toll, as the Egyptian has seen his shot volume drop by nearly 30% after returning from the wedding at which he likely caught the bug. Perhaps three years of being kicked all to bits by Premier League defenders — and getting no reward for it; last season he won 18 free kicks in 34 appearances — has caught up with him, and his legs just aren’t what they used to be. We might never know, but the effects appear undeniable.

In the past few decades, Liverpool have been the place where attackers reach the very peak of their powers, but a lack of consistent competitive success — and subsequent financial muscle — has meant that those same attackers have often sought to move elsewhere when they feel their ambitions exceed the Reds’ grasp. You can recite the names as well as I can; Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho.

This has led to to the Merseysiders becoming particularly apt at discovering and developing attacking talent, but what they have generally not been in a position to learn, is what you do with your stars as they near the downslope of their peak, but still want to remain at the club.

Liverpool’s average age has gone up by exactly two years in the past two seasons. This may seem reasonable and intuitive, but what it really shows is that there has been very little player turnover, and not much in the way of fresh blood coming in. By the start of next season, nine players will be 30 years or older, compared to just two at the start of this one. Six of those would be considered weekly starters.

Now, 30 is not the end of most players’ careers, but it is generally recognised as the point at which performances typically begin to dip, particularly in the case of explosive attackers, and it is definitely past the point of optimum resale value. For a club wishing to recruit elite talent without access to an elite wallet, that latter point is critical.

Michael Edwards, Jürgen Klopp, and the rest of the recruitment team need to find the balance between which of their players are reaching these tipping points, which players they stick with through and past their prime, likely at a financial loss, and which players they move on for a profit while there’s still one to be made, for the money to be reinvested into the building of a second consecutive great Liverpool team.

This is not an easy task, and if they get it right, it’s going to sting at first, as fans will have to wave goodbye to some of their favourite players at what appears to be a premature point in time, but, a year or two on, will have proved to be exactly the correct decision. If they get it wrong, the club runs the risk of declining players on massive contracts preventing the acquisition and development of new talent.

The work has begun. Diogo Jota looks a superstar, and Curtis Jones has developed into a genuine contender for serious midfield minutes, despite still being a teenager. Harvey Elliott’s loan spell looms tinily in the shadows. But there are decisions to be made, difficult ones, and soon.

So, which category does Mohamed Salah fall into? Should Liverpool’s extend his £200k per week contract, or, as would be expected for a player in this age profile, offer him a raise? On current evidence, probably not. Mo’s current deal runs until his 31st birthday, and unless the rest of the season offers suggestion that his recent run has merely been a blip on the radar, the club will have every reason to look at a potential move away for the Egyptian, perhaps as soon as this summer.

Diogo Jota has slipped seamlessly into the side, potentially threatening Salah’s spot as soon as he returns from injury, and the considerable sums the 28-year old would still command could be used to recruit the next great attacker, midfielder or central defender, perhaps even all three.

Despite the apprehension brought on by recent results, there are exciting times ahead. Fraught, no doubt, and complicated, but exciting. All we can do is cross our fingers that the decisions made will work out in the best interest of all parties involved.

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