Whats wrong with Mo Salah?

Is there something wrong with Mo Salah? Andrew Beasley delves further into the quality and quantity of shots the Egyptian is having to see if Mo is actually 'out of form.'
Andrew Beasley  |  28th February 2019

Mohamed Salah does not have a good record against Manchester United.

There’s no way to sugar coat it, it’s terrible. For all the wonderful things the Egyptian has done in the red of Liverpool, he has yet to score or assist a goal against the Red Devils.

He has taken on three other opponents without directly contributing to a goal – Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid – but hasn’t faced any of them more than twice, whereas he has lined up against United four times. Salah’s latest no-show against Liverpool’s fierce rivals from down the M62 predictably lead to tiresome banter merchants taking over social media and proclaiming him a one season wonder.

The Reds’ number 11 has only scored once against a fellow big six side this season, and that was a penalty. Never mind that he netted 8 times in such games last season, meaning Sergio Aguero is the only player with more ‘big six’ non-penalty goals than Salah since he joined Liverpool.

But then who needs facts when there’s retweets to be had, eh?

Even so, with one goal in the five games up to and including the tussle at Old Trafford, Salah hasn’t been in sparkling form of late. Liverpool drew all four of the matches in that sequence in which he failed to net, so they could do with his barren run ending. He was much brighter against Watford, though he didn’t score or assist a goal despite the Reds netting five.

 

But is there actually anything wrong, and what do the statistics say about it?

It’s certainly true Salah has been taking fewer shots lately. His fewest across a ten Premier League game sequence last season was 31 non-penalty shots, in a run which included two matches where he played no more than half of the match.

In the last ten games, in which he’s played every minute bar the last 11 at Old Trafford, the Egyptian has had 25 shots, excluding penalties. Had he not had seven attempts against Bournemouth in the recent 3-0 win – which, in fairness, is the most he’s taken in a league game for the Reds – then the picture would look even less appealing.

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In total, Salah averaged 4.3 non-penalty shots per 90 minutes in the league in his debut campaign, but only 3.4 in 2018/19. The average quality of the chances has held firm – at 0.17 expected goals per shot in both campaigns – though of course fewer shots means a lower xG tally per match.

It’s interesting there has been such a drop off in his shot frequency, when a lot of related stats have barely shifted from last season to this. On a per 90 minutes basis, successful dribbles are down 0.1, key passes and penalty box touches are up 0.1, and so on. There have been subtle changes in other attacking metrics, but shots have taken by far the biggest dip.

The drop in shots may be explained in stats which imply he has been working harder for the team this term. Salah’s interception rate remains virtually non-existent – he averages one every six matches or so – and even though his tackle rate has gone up, he still only averages 0.6 per 90 minutes. However, he’s already made more ball recoveries in the final third than he did in the whole of last season, and ten more than every other Liverpool player.

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Right or Central – where best for Mo?

But when looking at this season alone, the most interesting breakdown is by position. Jürgen Klopp rarely deviated from a 4-3-3 formation last season, with Salah playing wide right and Roberto Firmino through the middle.

This season has seen a roughly even split of matches though, with half utilising that system while others have seen a 4-2-3-1 with the Egyptian as the central forward. It seems Salah’s position is influencing his stats.

Some of the differences in the numbers are logical. Salah dribbles more and makes defensive actions more frequently when he is on the right, rather than when he is the focal point of the team. He also has more touches in the penalty box when playing centrally too.

But the real difference of interest is in the shot stats, in a variety of ways. Liverpool’s top scorer has bagged 10 non-penalty league goals when starting centrally, but only four when on the right. Nothing odd about that necessarily, except he has averaged 2.6 non-penalty shots per 90 minutes in the middle and 4.0 out wide.

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Roughly 10% of shots are converted on average, yet for Salah that figure has been 30% starting in the middle but only 7% from right forward.

It’s mostly all down to the quality of chance; Salah’s shots when starting wide have been worth 0.13 expected goals on average, as have the chances he has created for others. In the middle, his expected assists per chance rises to 0.18, and the shots to 0.24.

Even if we ignore the match against Crystal Palace, where he had a shot from on the goal line, Salah’s chances when starting centrally have been worth an average of 0.21 xG; almost 40% higher quality on average than when he plays on the right.

 

So is there particularly anything wrong with Mo?

Probably not, he’s just not been able to match last year, where he posted the second top scoring season by a Liverpool player in the history of the club.

The season after Ian Rush set that record, with 47 goals in 1983/84, he scored 26, and Salah should get close to or pass that with the number of matches remaining. But don’t worry if he’s having fewer shots, as long as they’re of higher quality.

That’ll keep the goals flowing.

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