If ever a face could sum up a team’s frustration, it was Mohamed Salah’s in Naples on Wednesday night.
Liverpool’s Egyptian star has never enjoyed being substituted. He hates it, in fact, and even more so when there’s half an hour remaining and his side are 4-1 down and chasing the game.
With two goals in his first seven competitive matches - we won’t count the FA Community Shield - this is his worst start, goalscoring wise, to a season since joining Liverpool in 2017. In the previous two campaigns, by way of comparison, Salah had scored six times by this point.
Already, the prospect of another Premier League Golden Boot - which would be his fourth in six seasons - looks remote, with Erling Haaland already into double figures and averaging a goal every 49 minutes. Salah, by contrast, is averaging one every 270.
He alone is not to blame for Liverpool’s problems. Rather, he is a victim of a team which has clearly lost its way, in terms of structure, organisation, energy and just about everything else in between. He may be one of the world’s best players, but even they have their struggles.
Jurgen Klopp suggested on Wednesday, after that chastening Champions League defeat to Napoli, that his side needed to “reinvent” themselves, but in Salah’s case it is more about returning to old habits than starting new ones. If Liverpool can get him firing, then the rest should follow.
So how do they do it? The key could lie not only in the return of Thiago Alcantara, who should add control and nous to a midfield that has lacked both all season, but in Darwin Nunez, around whom Liverpool’s new-look attack must now be built.
It seems a long time ago now, but there were promising signs in the way Salah and Nunez linked up and connected, briefly, against Manchester City in the Community Shield at the end of July, and then again at Fulham in the Premier League opener a week later.
In both games, both players scored and both players assisted the other, with Nunez’s penalty-box presence creating the kind of panic and confusion, not to mention space, from which Salah could profit.Getty
It is clear that Liverpool’s attack is changing. Sadio Mane’s departure was the headline of the summer, but of equal or perhaps greater significance is the move away from a system which relies heavily on Roberto Firmino’s unique skills as a deep-drifting, press-leading No.9.
The Brazilian has offered a reminder of those skills in recent weeks, and there is still a feeling that Liverpool’s best and most cohesive football comes when he is on song, but it is clear that Nunez, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota represent the future, and the question is how Liverpool handle that transition, and what kind of impact it has on the likes of Salah, not to mention full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Last week, after the goalless draw at Everton, it was suggested to Klopp that Salah was playing wider this season than in previous years. He rejected the notion.
“I don’t know what you’re seeing there,” Klopp said. “I don’t think, in the season, Mo is too often wide.
“We want to have Mo, and we always did have him, in central positions.”
There is no doubt that Salah’s form dipped towards the second half of last season, when he scored only four goals in his final 20 appearances, and it is easy to suggest that the trend has continued this season, with even his shot output dipping in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Salah usually leads the league in that regard, but at present he is behind the likes of Anthony Gordon and Rodrigo Moreno, not to mention Haaland or Harry Kane. He is yet to have more than one shot on target in a game, and his expected goals (xG) figure is just 2.78, with almost half of that coming in the game against Bournemouth, when he somehow failed to score or assist in a 9-0 victory.Getty
There is no suggestion - and nor should there be - that the new £350,000 ($405,000) a week contract he signed in July has led to complacency or a change in attitude. Salah, who has stated his desire to “break every record” at Liverpool, is simply not built that way, and the club have no concerns whatsoever over his focus, professionalism or training output. He remains a standard-bearer, in that regard.
The belief, rather, is that this is a temporary drop-off, that the return of Jota and Nunez and the presence of Thiago and, hopefully, a more structured midfield, means it won’t be long before Salah is firing on all cylinders again.
And once he is, the skies over Anfield will look a whole lot brighter than they have of late.