Liverpool running out of wriggle room and Salah’s struggles are not helping


Form is a very fragile thing. Last autumn Mohamed Salah was playing perhaps as well as he ever had. His goal at Chelsea on 2 January was his 23rd in the Premier League and Champions League combined. Since when he has scored just 10 times, only seven of them from open play. It’s true that on Saturday he nearly won the Merseyside derby late on, his shot coming back off Jordan Pickford’s near post, but for him this was another disappointing afternoon. In isolation, perhaps, it wouldn’t draw the attention, but the pattern is clear.

It’s not just Salah. Liverpool as a whole have been short of their familiar level. None of Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have been anywhere near their best. Van Dijk especially, a player who for a time had seemed almost invincible, impossible to dribble past, seems not to have recovered from the chasing 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.

Context, as ever, is required. This may be Liverpool’s worst start to a Premier League campaign under Jürgen Klopp, but they have still lost only once, and they did win the Community Shield. They are the joint-second highest scorers in the division (although ideally you wouldn’t be bundling 60% of those goals into one game against Bournemouth). They have still lost only three times this year – one of those a second leg when they still advanced, and another the Champions League final. If this is a crisis, it’s the sort of crisis most clubs would dream of.

But recent history suggests that title winners achieve a points total in the mid-90s. How many points can you afford to drop? 15? 18? 20? Liverpool have already dropped nine – having played only one of the Big Six. It may be that Manchester City’s abandonment of their desire for order opens things up, and it may be that there is a greater element of randomness in this most congested of seasons, but Liverpool are running out of wriggle room.

Yet Liverpool have had the better xG in five of their six games so far. They’re only a couple of goals off the sort of start, say, Tottenham have had, where the sense is they’re not at their best but have been picking up points anyway. Modern football is too complex, too interconnected, to say that is the fault of the forward line but it is a problem an in-form Salah might immediately mitigate.

So what has gone wrong? Perhaps Liverpool as a whole are suffering a hangover from May. With a week of last season to go they were, after all, still in with a chance of an unprecedented Quadruple. The celebratory parade after defeat in the Champions League final seemed a conscious attempt to cut through the sense of disappointment, to remind everybody just how extraordinary last season was, even if it resulted in only the two domestic cups, but that perhaps wasn’t enough. It may be that fatigue – emotional as much as physical or mental, although after seven years of Klopp, there may also be some of that – has just dulled the edges.

But Salah had two additional disappointments at the beginning of the year, losing on penalties to Senegal in both the Cup of Nations final and a World Cup qualifying play-off. The game against Chelsea was his last before a five-week break for the Cup of Nations and he hasn’t really been the same since (which is, of course, why Premier League managers 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 knock-on effect afterwards).

Egypt under Carlos Queiroz played a style of football that could hardly be more different from Liverpool’s. They sat deep, spoiled and looked to grind out results. Salah, whose celebrity status places him under almost unimaginable pressure when he plays for his country, is often confined to chasing lost causes, isolated on the right trying to pinch a throw-in or a free-kick, which is probably not the best use of his gifts. He scored only two goals in seven appearances in Cameroon, operating by the end in a fug of barely concealed frustration that has only rarely lifted since.

When he got back to Liverpool, Luis Díaz had arrived. The Colombian settled remarkably quickly, but his inclusion meant Sadio Mané moving into the centre. Mané thrived, but his natural game was not to drop deep as Roberto Firmino or Diogo Jota would, and that meant the space was not being created for Salah to attack from wide. The signing of Darwin Núñez is not going to change that – an issue Salah referred to last week. He has had to modify his approach, and almost certainly won’t get into as many goalscoring positions as he does with Firmino or Jota; his shots per game are down to 2.83 this season as opposed to 3.90 before he went to the Cup of Nations last season.

That’s not to say that the new-look forward line cannot work, merely that the adjustment is taking time and that, coupled with problems elsewhere in the team, is dragging Liverpool below the exceptional levels that have become normal under Klopp. Salah, right now, is not the player of a year ago, and Liverpool are not the team of a year ago.