Mohamed Salah led the scoring charts for Liverpool again in their incredible title-winning season in 2019/20, but for some reason the individual accolades elude him.
Any player who finishes a Premier League campaign with 19 goals and 10 assists must surely be considered the star of their side, and up there in the running for Player of the Season awards across the whole league.
Salah has the numbers this season, but not the accolades, though a lack of the latter shouldn’t diminish his importance to this historic Liverpool side.
Mohamed Salah, 2019/20
Started: 45 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 3
Unused sub: 3
Overall Season Rating: 9
There is plenty of brilliance among those goals and assists. Some inventive play, evasive dribbling, the flummoxing of opponents and helpless goalkeepers picking the ball out of their net.
Even the understated goals have something about them. A close-range finish against Watford was no ordinary tap-in, as he flicked it in with his weaker right boot with back to goal.
Speaking of that weaker foot, arguably the most impressive display of technique and accuracy in Liverpool red this season came in the shape of the Egyptian’s right-footed goal against Salzburg, scored from what appeared to be an impossible angle.
If Liverpool score one of those goals, the ones that define them—the free-flowing, technical, lightning-quick moves on the counter or to break down a low block—Salah is usually involved.
Outside of the Liverpool squad, only Kevin De Bruyne has more assists, and only De Bruyne has more goals and assists combined.
While De Bruyne is widely considered one of the best players in the league, even in Europe, Salah doesn’t even seem to be considered among Liverpool’s top five, let alone league-wide, at this moment in time.
Captain Jordan Henderson is being lauded as the epitome of the team, while any mention of standout individuals usually throws up the names of Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sadio Mane and Alisson along with the occasional mention for Andy Robertson and the team’s tactical heartbeat, Roberto Firmino.
Henderson won the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award. He’s the personification of this Liverpool team’s spirit and admitted his award might be a recognition of the group’s contribution as a whole to this Premier League title, rather than his own (this admission in itself is one of the reasons he won it).
Van Dijk, Mane, Alexander-Arnold, and Alisson also received votes, but the club’s leading scorer, and the biggest contributor to goals overall, was nowhere to be seen.
Why, despite the exceptional return which has seen him reach double figures in the goals and assists column, is Salah not seen as one of the best players in the league, or even in the Liverpool team?
Sometimes there is a feeling he can underwhelm for periods between the brilliance. Scuffing a shot, running into trouble or making the wrong decision.
There are numerous occasions when he shoots rather than passes to a free team-mate in a better position, but others where he passes rather than shoots. It’s not necessarily selfishness.
He leads the team for miscontrols and times dispossessed according to FBref, and averages 0.12 goals per shot compared to Mane’s 0.24. This can give an impression of carelessness or wastefulness, but the good stuff probably wouldn’t exist without this.
Miscontrols and dispossessions are often high for attacking players with high output. Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will also post high numbers for these stats due to their ‘high risk but potentially high reward’ play in attacking areas.
But is Salah receiving the rewards he should?
One more stat to demonstrate this occasional appearance of wastefulness is expected goals (xG). Salah averages an xG of 0.61 per 90 minutes, while scoring 0.59 actual goals per 90. He’s roughly scoring what his xG says he should.
Europe’s outstanding goalscorers this season—the likes of Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ciro Immobile, Duvan Zupata and Timo Werner—all outperform their xG per 90; ie. they score more than their xG says they should.
In his first season at Liverpool, Salah outperformed his xG per 90 in a manner similar to that which those mentioned have this season. In his second season he slightly outperformed it, and this season he was slightly under it.
This goes some way to explaining why his performances can sometimes appear underwhelming, even if he’s still producing an excellent return. He’s only in the top 30 in Europe for goals per 90 minutes rather than the top five as he was in 2017/18.
This doesn’t mean he is no longer one of the best players in Europe, and doesn’t mean he is no longer one of the best at the club. If anything, he might currently be the most underrated player at Liverpool, which is probably down to that unbelievable first season that set such a high bar.
His 2017/18 campaign was extraordinary, almost Messi level, and marked him out as one of the best players in the world.
A drop in output was expected, but even in a team which is defined by the collective rather than the individual, Salah’s output still stands out even if his performances sometimes don’t.
English football can often live in its own bubble and it is partly because of this that, at the moment, Salah is much more of a global star than he is a Premier League one.
His worldwide reach is cultural as well as sporting, and he’s edging ever closer to Mohamed Aboutrika in terms of his legendary status for Egypt, though an Africa Cup of Nations win might be needed to solidify such a status.
Which brings us onto his future for Liverpool, and the balance between international football and club football, which can be a tricky one—especially for African players, given AFCON is scheduled to be played mid-season.
Next season will benefit from the fact that the AFCON scheduled to take place in January 2021 has been moved back to January 2022, but there will still be qualifiers to play for this tournament, and for the 2022 World Cup.
Salah’s importance to Liverpool is felt when he’s not in the side. The only game in which Liverpool dropped points during their remarkable unbeaten run earlier in the season came against Man United when Salah was out injured.
His game time will need to be managed, as is the case with each of the star front three given the amount of football they have played in recent years.
Salah is already a Liverpool legend given the success his performances and goals have produced. The 2019/20 season solidified this status rather than diminishing it.
Even though he wasn’t considered the star of the team in terms of performances, he is still Liverpool’s biggest global star and remains one of the most important players in a team that will go down as one of the best in the club’s history.
Best moment: That winner against Man United, and the celebrations that followed.
Worst moment: Ignoring Mane at Turf Moor.
Role next season: An immovable, first-choice starter.