Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Mohamed Salah’s post-AFCON drop-off – and why it doesn’t matter

Posted on 17 May 2022 by Will Rogan

The solitary figure of Mohamed Salah, arguably Egypt’s greatest ever footballer, stood showered in green beams of laser light in the humid Senegal evening.

In March, the second leg of the World Cup qualifiers went to penalties. Salah had to score to keep his team in with a chance of qualifying.

He took a deep breath and set himself in perfect routine, before smashing a left-footed shot over the bar. The miss was greeted by baying from the laser wielding Senegal fans on the terraces.

This loss was particularly pointed too, as Egypt had lost to Senegal in the final of African football’s showpiece event, AFCON, a month earlier.

Egypt had again been knocked out by Senegal on the international stage via penalties. For Salah, who shoulders the hopes of a football mad nation, the mental and physical toll was becoming increasingly evident in his club form.

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Prior to leading his team to the final of the 2021 edition of the African Cup of Nations, Egyptian winger Salah was enjoying the richest vein of form in his career for Liverpool FC.

He had an incredible goalscoring record made up of several different types of goal, from mazy runs to cool finishes after a smart run in behind.

However, this record has ground to a halt since returning from Cameroon where the Pharaohs fell at the final hurdle to Senegal.

His club form has taken a dive since AFCON, with a poor return of goals and assists.

So why has Salah’s output dropped so significantly? The stats go some way to telling the story.

Salah’s pre-AFCON supremacy

Jürgen Klopp’s side came into the season hoping to remind the world of their merits after a difficult mid-pandemic 2020/2021 campaign.

Before AFCON, Salah achieved 22 goals and 10 assists in 27 appearances across all competitions on the right wing for Liverpool.

Of these extraordinary numbers, 14 goals and all 10 assists came in the Premier League.

In the Champions League group stage, Salah led the Reds to six victories out of a possible six, scoring seven. He blanked only in a 2-0 home victory against Atlético Madrid.

The highlight of this extraordinary run was a hattrick in the 5-0 demolition away at Manchester United in October 2021.

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One of the keys to Salah’s incredible form is his exceptional longevity and powers of recovery.

Since joining Liverpool in summer 2017, he has only missed three games due to injury.

This is a phenomenal record for someone who plays so much football at such an explosive speed, in a vital position in a team built on intensity.

This season, Salah has played in all 33 games for which he has been eligible in the Premier League. He started 30 of them and coming off the bench in three.

He missed out on only two victories against Brentford and Crystal Palace while on international duty.

Salah has also contributed minutes in all 12 of Liverpool’s Champions League games on their run to the final, to be played on the 28th May in Paris.

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A demanding season for Salah

Egypt’s reliance on their best player has almost certainly come at a detriment for the man himself.

As the Pharoah’s poster boy and main goalscoring outlet, Salah was forced to play every minute of his side’s AFCON campaign.

Salah contributed two goals and an assist in a negative and sometimes cynical Egypt setup.

In their seven-game run to the final, Egypt played 120 minutes in every knockout game, going to penalties three times. Salah also played 90 minutes in all three group games.

That’s a total of 753 minutes in seven games.

Salah played 1,874 minutes played in the Premier League prior to going to AFCON, and 467 minutes in the Champions League.

This brings him to an astonishing total of 3,091 minutes in 34 games for club and country up until the end of AFCON. http://gty.im/1348580514

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Since losing to Senegal at AFCON and returning to Merseyside, Salah has played 1,536 minutes over 22 games.

In that time, he has scored seven goals at a rate of 0.30 goals per game and provided six assists at 0.26 assists per game.

Of his seven goals since returning from AFCON, three have been from the penalty spot.

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This is hardly a strong return considering only two of his previous twenty-two goals for Liverpool this season were penalties.

The dramatic drop-off is clear to those who watch Liverpool consistently. Salah looks tired, out of ideas and often frustrated.

His usually inimitable first touch is off, his incisive passes roll astray and he often looks bereft when things don’t fall for him.

As the below graphic shows, Salah’s output has plummeted significantly, particularly his goalscoring.

 

Having played such a large amount of football at such a high level for so long, it is unsurprising that his form has suffered.

It appears that the intensity of tournament football and the heartbreak of losing in the final has manifested itself in a poor return for Liverpool since.

What has Salah’s dip meant for Liverpool?

Despite Salah’s talismanic role for the Reds, his post-AFCON drop-off has not been evident in Liverpool’s results.

Liverpool’s goalscoring has of course suffered since Salah’s dip.

They have scored fewer goals since Salah returned from AFCON – 2.03 goals per game compared to 2.79 goals per game prior to the tournament.

 

 

Although it seemed Liverpool would suffer collectively due to their best player’s loss of form, their competitive edge has not dulled.

At the time of writing, they have already secured a domestic cup double.

They are preparing for their third Champions League final in five years, and sit four points behind Manchester City in the league with two games to play.

Salah went off injured in the first half of the FA Cup final, complaining about a sore groin. He will undoubtedly miss the rest of the Premier League season.

 

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However, he confirmed to journalists after the cup final that he would be fit and firing for the showdown with Real Madrid in Paris on May 28th.

 

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The signing of Colombian Luis Díaz in January has softened any consequences that Salah’s dip in form might have had.

The former Porto man has bagged five goals and four assists in 23 appearances since his arrival.

Díaz’s role as a specialised and direct left winger means Mané has been able to take up the false nine role for Liverpool.

Mané has played ten games through the middle according to transfermarkt.co.uk, scoring eight goals and providing four assists from that position.

Portuguese forward Diogo Jota, who can play on the wing and at centre-forward has provided 21 goals and eight assists in 51 Reds appearances so far this season.

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Goals and creativity also come from elsewhere in Liverpool’s team, testament to excellent recruitment and enviable squad depth.

Midfielder Fabinho is on eight goals for the season, and cult hero Divock Origi has bagged important goals, too.

Liverpool’s defence have also done their job. They have tightened up since Salah’s AFCON absence, conceding 0.61 goals per game compared to 0.93 prior to his departure.

 

Goalkeeper Alisson jointly leads the race for the golden glove and Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk is back to his imperious best after a long injury.

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The collective picking up of the slack has meant that Liverpool have remained in contention for an unprecedented quadruple.

So, despite a significant drop in their main man’s form, Liverpool have managed to cover his back. In previous years, a poor Salah streak may have had more tangible consequences for Jürgen Klopp.

With the team the German has built, however, even when one of the world’s best players isn’t quite firing, the players around him are more than capable of keeping the Reds in the running.

 

 

Stats courtesy of: https://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/

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