Richard Jolly takes an in-depth look at Mohamed Salah's scoring exploits and unearths some mind-boggling numbers behind Liverpool star's success.
Fernando Torres did not do it. Nor did Luis Suarez. But when Mohamed Salah steered a shot past Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale he belatedly became the first Liverpool player to emulate Michael Owen. He had brought up 20 goals in a third successive season.
When football is finally cleared to resume, he may yet get at least a share of the Golden Boot for a third consecutive campaign, which only Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry have done in the Premier League era and only Jimmy Greaves before then. Only Shearer, with 79 for Blackburn, has scored more goals in his first 100 Premier League games for one club than Salah’s 70.
And if that could be deemed an artificial statistic, with Salah’s overall numbers reflecting his bit-part role at Chelsea, the quality of the leaderboard, including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Sergio Aguero and Suarez, shows the scale of the achievement. It is exacerbated because of his position. Salah has quite a narrow brief but he is still a winger-striker, part of the modern breed of nominal wide men who outscore the specialist penalty-box poacher.
And yet there persists a feeling that it is somehow underwhelming. Perhaps it is because Liverpool’s season has generated an avalanche of statistics, so some can be overlooked. Perhaps it is because Salah’s first year at Anfield was so extraordinary that anything else would automatically feel like an anti-climax.
Or maybe it is because Salah’s goals are almost expected because he always seems to be shooting. There seems a fairly simple equation. Salah believes in the law of averages. The more shots he has, the more goals he can score. Add in the reality that the majority of his shots come from inside the box and that he works the goalkeeper more than most and sooner or later, goals will follow. He can be called selfish, but the figures underpin his logic.
This season, Salah has had 98 shots, one behind Raul Jimenez but ahead of everyone else. In each of his three seasons, he has figured in the two most prolific shooters. Over those campaigns, his total of 379 shots puts him 37 clear of Harry Kane. But for injury, the Tottenham forward would surely be the leader, but Salah’s capacity to stay fit is a reason why he has played in 100 of 105 league games since joining Liverpool, starting 97.
No one comes close to his 174 shots on target. Kane, on 144, is nearest, Aguero a distant third on 112. In particular, no one has more shots from scoring positions. Salah averages 2.8 per game from inside the penalty box this season and 2.9 from the 18-yard area in 2017-18. The exception was last season, when he took more from long range, and it remains the case that only three of those 70 goals have come from outside the 18-yard area.
The recurring theme is where his goals come from: between six and 18 yards out. Salah is the penalty-area predator, not the six-yard box scorer. The winger-striker enjoys fewer tap-ins than the out-and-out centre-forward; only four of Salah’s 32 league goals in 2017-18 came from within the six-yard box, just as only two of his 16 this season have. Bizarrely, his average of 0.3 shots per game from the six-yard box is the same as Nicolas Otamendi’s. More tellingly, it is the average across his Liverpool career, whereas some strikers will average 0.5 per game. He may have fewer sitters, open goals and close-range finishes, but he accumulates good chances.
What it amounts to is a player who, statistically speaking, is likely to score. Salah has figured in the division’s top two for xG in each of his three seasons. It points to his relentlessness and Liverpool’s repeated success in finding him in promising positions, especially the channel between opponents’ centre-backs and full-back.
It is logical that top scorers are among the best finishers. Many of the leading marksmen dramatically overperform their expected goals figure; given the quality of the chances they have, they should have fewer goals. Jamie Vardy (+4.76), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (+5.00), Danny Ings (+3.95), Kane (+3.10) and Salah’s Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane (+1.57) are cases in point this season.
In contrast, Salah is only at +.046. His xG of 15.54 is the highest in the Premier League, a mere 0.05 above Roberto Firmino’s, whose actual tally of eight makes him statistically the most wasteful finisher. In a sense, Firmino is the anti-Salah: none of his league goals this season have come at Anfield, whereas the Egyptian only has two on the road but has 14 in as many games at Anfield. Yet his victims have included Arsenal, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs, so it is harder to paint him as flat-track bully.
His lack of away goals is rare but otherwise his last two seasons have shown a similarity. In 2018-19, he only fractionally overperformed his xG of 21.79, ending with 22 goals. Only Aubameyang, with whom he shared the Golden Boot, had a higher xG.
So the great outlier was 2017-18, Salah’s astonishing debut campaign, and not merely because his total of 44 goals ranked second only to Ian Rush’s club record of 47 in Liverpool’s distinguished history. His 32 Premier League goals came as he overperformed his xG by 6.86. No one else has scored so many more goals than they ‘ought’ to have done in any of his three seasons in England. But it is also the case that, since such statistics were first collated in 2014-15, only two players have ever had a higher xG in a season than Salah in 2017-18: Kane that same year and Aguero three seasons earlier.
His subsequent scoring feels the norm, not the exception. Yet if it is a triumph of Jurgen Klopp’s gameplan to get him into the penalty box time and again, perhaps the numbers suggest that, since that golden year, Salah’s excellence comes partly from his persistence. Maybe that makes him a great forward rather than a great finisher, but the statistics mean he is rubbing shoulders with the striking superstars.