20 June 2017

On Mohamed Salah

For all the hand-wringing and fears, Mohamed Salah is now a Liverpool player. For what might be a Liverpool record transfer fee, dependent on add-ons and accounting and who's reporting. And, to be fair to Liverpool, it is only June 22.

Well that's encouraging. Continual improvement from age 21 through now, an absolutely stunning last two seasons at AS Roma, and even his Chelsea tenure seems under-appreciated in statistical retrospect.

I enjoy this too. Incidentally, there are an awful lot of similarities in Salah and Mané's numbers from last season. Like Mané and Coutinho, that's an impressive goals + assists per 90 total, even better in both goals and assists than Liverpool's two best attackers from 2016-17. Like Mané, that's a heavy emphasis on in-box shots and clear-cut chance goals. More key passes than Firmino and almost as many as Coutinho. A better tackles + interception rate than Mané despite playing in a less fervent press. A dribble success rate also exactly at Mané and Firmino's clips, despite far fewer attempted. Fewer possession losses than any of Liverpool's primary front three from last season.

And lots and lots of goals.

Here's video of those 19 goals.

15 of 19 goals in the Danger Zone. Five in the six-yard box, five from rebounds. 14 of those 19 goals were from Opta-defined clear-cut chances, including 10 of 15 in the league.

That's not a winger's record. That's a striker's record. That's a poacher's record.

A lot of Salah's goals surprisingly fill what was a shallow spot for Liverpool last season. Middle of the Danger Zone, right side. Salah cutting in and getting his, whether from through-balls, chips, crosses, dribbles, or rebounds. Between Coutinho doing Coutinho, Mané moving where he wants, and Firmino mostly central, the right-side of the box was far less represented in Liverpool's scoring totals than you'd expect from Liverpool's goal return. Not that it truly matters where goals are scored as long as goals are scored, but more options and more locations (good locations, too!) is always better.

It's also absolutely clear that Mohamed Salah is very left-footed. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are only five left-footed players in Liverpool's squad. Three are defenders – Moreno, Sakho, and Klavan – two of whom seem certain to leave this summer. There's Sheyi Ojo, whose status is very much up for debate. And there's Daniel Sturridge. And that's it, no matter how two-footed Lallana is.

Liverpool scored 15 left-footed goals in the league last season: Lallana 4; Firmino, Mané 3; Can, Coutinho, Origi, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1. Mohamed Salah scored 11 on his own. Liverpool scored 19 left-footed goals in all competitions last season (three more for Sturridge and one for Klavan). Salah scored 14 on his own.

Salah is another crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle, both because of his abilities and just in the position he plays. Liverpool very much suffered from a lack of attacking depth last season. Sadio Mané missed 11 league matches last season. Coutinho missed seven, as did Adam Lallana – who played a lot more matches in midfield than in attack. Salah also missed seven – two through injury, four because of the African Cup of Nations, and one because he was left on the bench in a rout of Fiorentina, after just returning from AFCON. But just two were through injury, one fewer than he missed in 2015-16.

When Mané, Firmino, and Coutinho all started, Liverpool averaged 2.20 points per game in the league. When any of the three were absent, Liverpool averaged 1.87 points per game. Which wasn't as much of a drop-off as I expected, but a drop-off nonetheless – the difference between 84 points and 71 points when averaged out over a full 38-match season. Liverpool don't just need attacking depth – although it certainly doesn't hurt – Liverpool need another player capable of changing and winning games. And Mohamed Salah's certainly capable of doing so.

And, just as importantly, Salah aligns perfectly within Liverpool's ideal age bracket.

Salah, Mané, Coutinho, and Firmino – Liverpool top four attackers – are all 25, the first three born within two months of each other. Just entering their prime. Wijnaldum's 26, Henderson's 27, Can's 23. Clyne and Matip are 26, Lovren will be 28 in two weeks. This side, this squad, this starting XI, is coming of age now. Right now.

When everyone's available, Coutinho can and probably will play deeper, as we saw in the last two matches of 2016-17. Mané can and probably will play on the left, as he did in around a third of his matches for Southampton, as he usually does for Senegal.

But Coutinho will still get games in the front three. Mané will still get games on the right. Liverpool don't necessarily need plug and play superstars, although that rarely hurts. Liverpool need depth – more specifically, quality in depth. Liverpool need options.

Liverpool now have another very, very good option. One of the all-around attacking options in Serie A last season. One which helps all over the front six. It frees up Coutinho to play in midfield. Lallana will probably be an often-used utility player, capable of featuring in either midfield or on either flank. Mané can play on either flank. Both Henderson and Can can play either midfield role. And, if absolutely needed, I suspect Salah would do well enough in leading the line, as would Mané. It's weird, and it's also summer – that time of unavoidable optimism, where we all think the team is better than it actually is – but just this one signing makes the front six look so much deeper.

Of course, there are concerns. There are always concerns.

Mohamed Salah's best position is Sadio Mané's position. Sure, Salah can play as a second striker or as a more orthodox winger on the left. Mané can play as a striker or on the left. But best position is still best position and changing what's worked is always fraught with peril.

And, speaking of emulating Sadio Mané... remember when Mané and Matip missed an entire month while Liverpool were mired in a tailspin? Remember why? Yeah. If you thought you hated the 2017 African Cup of Nations, get hyped for the 2019 version.

Also, like most scorers, like most creative attackers, Salah can be incredibly streaky. And his streaks have come at the same time in his last two seasons at Roma.

Despite scoring 15 and assisting 11 in the league in 2016-17, Salah scored just once and created just two assists from November 20 through March 12, with his lone goal and both assists coming after February 7. Granted, that's a bit unfair because of his participation in the African Cup of Nations, missing the first five league matches of 2017, but it's not as if those were the only matches he failed to score in. Or that similar didn't happen the season before.

Put bluntly: Mohamed Salah failed to score or assist in the league from the end of November through the end of January in either 2015-16 or 2016-17. And I'm sure you remember how well Liverpool did during that stretch last season. How much Liverpool needed help – especially in attack – during that stretch last season.

Salah's drought lasted from Match 10 through Match 21 (October 20 – January 24) in 2015-16, and from Match 13 through Match 23 (November 20 – February 7) in 2016-17. And he only missed ten of those 23 matches: five because of AFCON and two through injury last season, three through injury and one through suspension in 2015-16. 13 games, during the often difficult, often treacherous winter period. No goals or assists. Yes, yes, sample size. Yes, yes, circumstances. Yes, yes, Serie A has a two-week winter break during that time. Yes, yes, Sadio Mané had a similar drought in his last season at Southampton. Still slightly worrisome.

I remember writing "now is the winter of our discontent" far too often last season. I'd prefer to not do it again.

There's also the fear that Salah won't be able to replicate those spell-binding numbers from the last two seasons. I'm not especially concerned on the goal-scoring front: that Liverpool attack – everyone involved – scores goals, often in bunches, when the best players are available. Even Divock Origi, who most will admit disappointed last season, put up 0.43 goals per 90 in the league last season. But I am a bit more concerned about goal creation. Eight of Salah's 12 assists in all competitions (seven of 11 in Serie A) and 22 of Salah's 71 created chances went to Edin Dzeko, and Liverpool won't often have a player like Edin Dzeko up front, at least when Firmino's the primary striker. Sturridge, Origi, Ings, and Solanke may be different stories, but I still very much expect Salah's key pass and assist rates to go down next season. Like Sadio Mané, he'll more often be on the end of what's created by Firmino, Coutinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana, etc.

He'll be playing with different players, different types of players, and he'll also be playing in a different league.

You're going to see and hear the words "Chelsea flop" far too frequently over the new few days, weeks, and months. At least this one's already rightfully debunked. If Salah's a Chelsea flop, so were De Bruyne, Lukaku, Sturridge, etc. But it's almost fair to worry about his past Premier League experience. It's probably fairer to worry about the league where he put up the numbers that are leading Liverpool to this deal.

Want to make a Liverpool supporter cringe? Here's a fun list: Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Alberto Aquilani, Andrea Dossena, Christian Poulsen, Daniele Padelli. Those are some fun Serie A transfers in the last 10 years.

Of course, there's also Philippe Coutinho, so let's hope the curse is limited to actual Italians and Christian Poulsen.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent.

The hype may have been overwhelming and unreachable, but Paul Pogba just had a perfectly cromulent season. Graziano Pelle – by way of Feyenoord before joining the Premier League – and Manolo Gabbiadini did or have done well enough for Southampton. Marcos Alonso was excellent last season, Matteo Darmian seems capable every now and then, and Kolarov was terrifying in his prime. Shaqiri's been as advertised at Stoke, although his more formative years were spent in Switzerland and Germany rather than Italy.

But there's also Juan Cuadrado, who's once again thriving in Serie A after a failed spell at Chelsea – another one of those "Chelsea flops," one bought as Salah's replacement. There's Erik Lamela, the Lost Boy of Tottenham. There's Stefan Jovetic, who was more than capable but – like Lamela – injury-plagued and subsequently forgotten. And there are all those Liverpool washouts.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent, but I obviously also worry. I worry about a lot of things; it's what I do.

And we're not getting out of here without mentioning the transfer fee. €40m, or whatever's eventually announced or achieved, is a lot of money.

But that's not something that actually worries me. It doesn't mean anything except let's pretend it actually gets Andy Carroll's transfer fee record off the books. Here's a more meaningful number: £8.3 billion. That's the current Premier League TV deal revenue. Liverpool received £148.4 million of that in 2016-17.

I've said it after almost every transfer in the past few seasons, and was especially vehement in regards to Sadio Mané's. Pay no attention to the fee. Pay attention to the player's talents, and how the player fits into the Liverpool side that Jürgen Klopp is building.

Mohamed Salah is egregiously talented. And Mohamed Salah absolutely fits.

14 June 2017

On Liverpool's 2017-18 PL Fixtures

Here's the actual game-by-game fixture list from the official site.

And a reminder: for comparable results between the three relegated and promoted clubs, it's in order of finish from last season. The 18th-placed side in 2016-17 matches up with last season's Championship winners, 19th with last season's runners-up, and 20th with the playoff winners. So, Hull = Newcastle, Boro = Brighton, and Huddersfield = Sunderland. It's certainly not perfect, but it's the closest we can get.

My initial thoughts:

It's finally sinking in that Liverpool are going to play a lot of games next season. Like, a lot; somewhere between 55-60 seems a safe guess, compared to last season's 47. But it'll take some doing to top the 63 in 2015-16, the joint-most Liverpool have played in one campaign (along with 2000-01, the cup treble season) since 1991-92. For comparison, Liverpool played 58 in 2014-15, 43 in 2013-14, 54 in 2012-13, 51 in 2011-12, and 54 in 2010-11. Weird how Liverpool's best two Premier League campaigns in the last eight seasons came the only times they've had fewer than 50 matches.

Even if Liverpool don't win their Champions League playoff, they'll drop into the Europa League. Plus, there's the League Cup. And when it looks as if the fixture list starts to ease in January, we'll have the FA Cup, potentially still the League Cup, and maybe even *crosses fingers* European knock-out rounds starting in February.


It feels like I should mention that Liverpool's squad wasn't even deep enough for 47 games last season.

But, on the whole, it seems a reasonably decent fixture list. The matches against last season's Top 7 are fairly spread out. There aren't any truly vicious back-to-back away matches. Liverpool start away from home for the third consecutive season, but against a side that'll have a new manager and almost certainly a fair amount of new players. Aside from away matches against United, Everton, and Chelsea, the final three months seem relatively tame, similar to last season's run-in where Liverpool won eight of the last 12, with three draws and a loss, to barely nudge their way into fourth.

Of course, as always with Liverpool, dig a little bit deeper and you start to worry.

Liverpool's matches prior to the all-important Champions League playoff round are Watford away and Palace at home. An away match to start then a fixture that Liverpool lost last season, against a side that somehow, bafflingly, often causes Liverpool problems.

The subsequent matches following European competition – whether it's the Champions League or Europa League – are Arsenal away, Burnley at home, Newcastle away, Tottenham away, West Ham away, Chelsea at home, and Everton at home.

Four matches against last season's top seven sides, two away and two at home. Four matches away, four at Anfield. Liverpool's record in those fixtures last season was 4W-2D-2L (remember, Newcastle away = Hull away and let's not talk about Hull away any more than we have to), which is more than decent (a 2.25 ppg average), but will also be hard to replicate. Arsenal's going to be better. Liverpool barely won against Burnley. An away match against a promoted side. Tottenham. One of Liverpool's bogey opponents. Last season's runaway league winners. And a Merseyside Derby.

There's only one back-to-back against sides from last season's Top Six, but it's a home match against Manchester United followed by a trip to Tottenham, with one of those European matches will be sandwiched in between. Liverpool play Arsenal in the third Premier League match and City in the fourth Premier League match, but there's an international break in between.

So let's also mention those international breaks. We get one before facing City. We get another before facing United. There will be matches against Southampton (H) and Crystal Palace (A) after internationals later in the season. And it will be hard to top Liverpool's record following internationals in 2016-17, when they beat Leicester and Everton at home, and drew with United and Southampton, two 0-0s that probably should have been wins.

And there's the small matter of December. There will be eight matches. Eight. Maybe nine; the League Cup schedule hasn't been announced yet, if Liverpool get that far (which they have in the last three seasons). There wasn't a League Cup game in December last season – Liverpool beat Leeds at the very end of November before resuming in January – but there was one in the first week of December in 2015-16 and second week of December in 2014-15.

But the Boxing Day – New Year's stretch isn't wholly awful. Swansea (H), Leicester (H), Burnley (A). Two home games and a short away trip and – for what little it's worth, at least last season – against sides who finished 12th, 15th, and 16th in 2016-17. Last season's holiday week was Stoke (H), City (H), Sunderland (A). 2015-16 was Leicester (H), Sunderland (A), West Ham (A). And I suspect you still remember 2013-14: City (A), Chelsea (A), and Hull (H), the first two ending in 1-2 losses which very, very much made a difference at the end of the season.

It does look better once Liverpool get through what will inevitably be the winter of our discontent. Liverpool went unbeaten in what will be next season's final 16 fixtures in 2016-17: from Manchester City at Anfield (a 1-0 win) through a victory over the second Promoted Championship side to close the campaign. 11 wins and five draws, an average of 2.38 points per game.

Of course, Liverpool almost certainly won't replicate that run. And, ideally, Liverpool will have more matches than those listed above, preferably the Champions League knock-out rounds but possibly the Europa League, and maybe an FA Cup run, and maybe the League Cup semi-finals and final.


But there really is little point worrying about the fixture list. Liverpool will play all 19 other teams twice. There will be cup matches, more than usual thanks to Europe, but that goes along with actually being good at the football.

Last season, we freaked out about playing top sides away from home early, and Liverpool beat both Arsenal and Chelsea and drew with Tottenham. We freaked out about the comparable run-in results – Liverpool were winless in the final six equivalent fixtures from 2015-16 – and Liverpool ended winning four, drawing once, and losing once in last season's last six matches to cement that Champions League qualifying place.

Once the season starts, you can only beat what's directly in front of you. You have to manage the inevitable fixture congestion and injuries. You have to be better than you were the season before, and we're all still well aware where Liverpool still need to improve.

And I can't believe we still have two months before it starts.