Liverpool are running out of room for maneuver and Salah’s struggles aren’t helping

Liverpool are running out of room for maneuver and Salah’s struggles aren’t helping

Liverpool are running out of room for maneuver and Salah’s struggles aren’t helping

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Form is a very fragile thing. Last fall Mohamed Salah perhaps sounded like he never did. His goal at Chelsea on January 2 was his 23rd in the Premier League and Champions League combined. Since he has only scored 10 goals, including only seven on open play. True, he nearly won the Merseyside derby late on Saturday, his shot returned to Jordan Pickford’s near post, but for him this was another disappointing afternoon. In isolation, he might not attract attention, but the pattern is clear.

It’s not just Salah. Liverpool as a whole have been below the familiar level. None of Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have ever come close to their best. Van Dijk in particular, a player who for a while had seemed almost invincible, impossible to dribble, seems not to have recovered from the chase that Aleksandar Mitrovic gave him on the opening Saturday of the season, and could easily have been sent off against Everton for his foul on Amadou Onana.

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Context, as always, is necessary. This may be Liverpool’s worst start to a Premier League campaign under Jürgen Klopp, but they have still only lost once and won the Community Shield. They are the second highest scorers in the division (although ideally you would not have grouped 60% of those goals in a match against Bournemouth). They have only lost three times this year: one return when they were still advanced and another the Champions League final. If this is a crisis, it is the kind of crisis most clubs would dream of.

But recent history suggests that title winners get a point total in the mid-1990s. How many points can you afford to lose? 15? 18? 20? Liverpool have already fallen nine, having only played one of the Big Six. It may be that Manchester City’s abandonment of the desire for order opens things up, and there may be a greater element of randomness in this busier season, but Liverpool are running out of room for maneuver.

Yet Liverpool have won xG in five of their six games so far. They are just a couple of goals off the kind of start, let’s say, Tottenham had, where the feeling is that they are not at their best, but they have collected points nonetheless. Modern football is too complex, too interconnected, to say it’s the attacking line’s fault, but it’s a problem that a fit Salah could immediately mitigate.

So what went wrong? Perhaps Liverpool as a whole have been suffering from a hangover since May. A week before the end of last season, after all, they still had an unprecedented quadruple chance. The celebratory parade after the defeat in the Champions League final seemed a conscious attempt to end the sense of disappointment, to remind everyone how extraordinary last season was, even if it ended only with the two national cups, but perhaps not it was enough. It may be that the exhaustion – emotional as well as physical or mental, though after seven years of Klopp, there might be some of that too – has just blurred the edges.

But Salah had two more disappointments earlier this year, losing on penalties to Senegal in both the Nations Cup final and the World Cup qualifying play-offs. The match against Chelsea was the last one before a five-week hiatus for the Nations Cup and has never been the same since (which is, of course, why Premier League executives hate the tournament. coming mid-season; it’s not just that they lose the player for the month of the tournament, it’s the potential ripple effect afterward).

Mohamed Salah suffered a double disappointment with Egypt in 2022, losing the Afcon final and not qualifying for the World Cup.

Mohamed Salah suffered a double disappointment with Egypt in 2022, losing the Afcon final and not qualifying for the World Cup. Photograph: Getty Images

Egypt under Carlos Queiroz played a style of football that could hardly be more different from that of Liverpool. They sat deep, spoiled and tried to get results. Salah, whose celebrity status puts him under almost unimaginable pressure when playing for his country, is often forced to chase lost causes, isolated on the right trying to pinch a lineout or free-kick, which is probably not the best use of his gifts. He scored just two goals in seven appearances in Cameroon, ultimately operating in a barely hidden rage of frustration that has only rarely arisen since.

When he returned to Liverpool, Luis Díaz had arrived. The Colombian settled in very quickly, but the inclusion of him made Sadio Mané move to the center. Mané thrived, but his natural game was not to go deep as Roberto Firmino or Diogo Jota would have done, and that meant no space was created for Salah to attack from outside. Darwin Núñez’s signing won’t change that, an issue Salah referred to last week. He had to change his approach and almost certainly he won’t enter as many scoring positions as he does with Firmino or Jota; his shots per game have dropped to 2.83 this season compared to 3.90 before he went to the Nations Cup last season.

This is not to say that the new forward line cannot work, simply that the adjustment is taking time and that, coupled with problems in other parts of the squad, is dragging Liverpool below the exceptional levels that have become normal under Klopp. . Salah, at the moment, is not the player of a year ago and Liverpool are not the team of a year ago.

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