Mo Salah's struggles aren't a big deal but he has room for improvement
It's a telling demonstration of Mohamed Salah's outstanding 2017-18 season that just seven games and three goals into the new campaign, we're already questioning why he isn't quite himself.
Salah's output is a good return from a player who has carried Liverpool's main threat in almost every game this season. Yet after a debut campaign that featured 32 goals and 10 assists, we've come to expect Lionel Messi-esque numbers. Of course, that might prove unreasonable considering last season's goal-scoring tally was more than double anything Salah had previously managed in his career.
His return to Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening was ended prematurely, with Jurgen Klopp removing the Egypt international after an hour. The identity of his replacement, Xherdan Shaqiri, represented a straight swap rather than a change in system, and Klopp later confirmed that Salah wasn't injured. He was simply sacrificed, with Liverpool chasing the game in their most important contest of the season so far, because Klopp wasn't convinced Salah was likely to provide a goal -- something difficult to imagine last season.
Despite the alarm, Salah's underlying statistics remain very encouraging. No one in the Premier League has found themselves with more "big chances" (eight) as defined by Opta. Similarly, his "expected goals" return is the highest in the Premier League. Players' overall output usually returns to their "expected goal" figure after a while, and Klopp insisted that Salah putting himself into goal-scoring positions remains the key thing. "As long as he is working like he works and gets into the situations that he gets in," he said, "I'm completely fine [with his performances] and everything will be OK."
There has, however, been a problem with Salah's finishing. Assess each of his 29 shots this season, and it becomes clear that Salah hasn't been unfortunate in front of goal or been denied by outstanding saves. His finishing has simply been uncharacteristically poor.
This trend was summarised by a couple of first-half attempts at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, both struck from a familiar, Arjen Robben-esque position: outside the box, in an inside-right position after Salah had worked his way infield. The first was curled tamely into the arms of Kepa Arrizabalaga, the second was wildly off target. The statistics don't adequately explain that Salah's shots didn't merely not result in a goal; rather, they were very poor efforts in two different ways.
This has been familiar this season for Salah: In the 1-0 home victory over Brighton, Salah fired two second-half efforts crazily wide of goal, to the extent that it was difficult to deduce whether Salah was attempting to open up his body and curl the ball inside the far post or trying to strike across the ball in an attempt to get some reverse swing away from the goalkeeper. At times he's been too desperate to pull the trigger from those inside-right positions; while his attempts from inside the box have remained steady, he's shooting more from outside the box and a higher number of his shots have been blocked.
The number of blocked shots might prove to be the most significant story here because Salah remains noticeably one-footed, always attempting to cut inside onto his left. Since returning to the Premier League last summer, 89 percent of Salah's attempts (excluding headers) have been with his left foot. That's significantly more than his two rivals for last season's Golden Boot, Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero, with figures of 73 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Perhaps more significant, there's an even starker contrast when comparing Salah's numbers to other high-scoring wide players. Since the start of last season, Eden Hazard has taken only 58 percent of shots with his favoured right foot, Raheem Sterling and Sadio Mane's figures are 63 percent, while Son Heung-min's is 65 percent. Could Salah have gone down the outside and finished with his weaker foot into the far corner, as Hazard did to open the scoring Saturday?
It's unquestionably too early to suggest Salah has been "figured out" in his second season, and it's worth reiterating that he has, since his move to Liverpool, outscored all of the aforementioned players. But there's more chance of "figuring out" a player so determined to shoot with one foot; there's also a much better chance of blocking his shots. It's also worth consideration that arguably the main flaw in the "expected goal" metric, which suggests Salah has been performing well, is that it doesn't sufficiently take into account the positioning of defenders or the likelihood of shots being blocked.
Salah's three Premier League strikes have all been first-time finishes: converting into open goals against West Ham and Southampton, and a low shot from the right against Brighton, which goalkeeper Matt Ryan should probably have pushed to safety rather than pushing it onto the inside of the post and in. Salah's finishing has looked less fluid when he's manufactured a chance himself; he's often snatched at the ball or got it stuck slightly under his feet.
That probably points to a loss of sharpness, that his issues this season are perhaps mental rather than physical. The disappointment of departing from the Champions League final early, then the stress of returning too quickly from that shoulder problem to lead his side at the World Cup, have probably had an impact.
Such issues will probably be resolved given time, but there are practical concerns for both Salah and Klopp to address. For the player, whether his decision-making and shot selection have been good enough, particularly after dribbling inside from the right. For the manager, whether Salah should be deployed more regularly in the centre, for fear Liverpool's main man might be finding himself boxed into tight situations and rushing his shots under pressure.
Salah's performances are likely to rise once again, but he might need to improve his all-round game.