It would make sense if this fact had eluded you, but in between contentious referee decisions there was actually a hell of a game of soccer played at Anfield yesterday between Liverpool and Tottenham. Because the job of managing is so inherently conspiratorial, and fandom so often joyless and blinkered, and media coverage so shallow and reliant on easy controversy, the majority of the focus after the game has centered on the two late penalty calls that offered Tottenham a way back into a match they’d been pretty handily bested in for most of the 90 minutes. Which is a shame, because if what you like about soccer is, you know, the actual act of playing soccer, yesterday’s match was a fascinating one full of moments much more deserving of the kind of attention currently being wasted on irrelevant rule-book litigating.
For instance: Holy shit, did you see Victor Wanyama’s cannon shot? He absolutely destroyed that ball. A perfect shot that flew so hard into the net that it came bounding back out from the goal as if it had hit a brick wall. At first I thought Wanyama had actually missed and hit something behind the goal, such was the force with which it hurtled into and back out of the net. It was cool as hell.
And another thing: Jürgen Klopp might still be off whinging about the penalties that went against his team, saying the refereeing decisions “massively influenced” the game and that the terrible-in-his-mind calls happened because the ref “obviously wanted to be in the middle of interest,” but the fundamental problems on display are the same ones that have plagued his Liverpool since he’s come to the Premier League.
Liverpool are almost comically incapable of holding onto leads because of their inability to either kill off matches with safe and boring possession or to do so with steely deep defending. An inevitable side effect of Liverpool’s primary plan of ceaseless pressing is that their players will be exhausted in the latter stages of any given match. By not being able to sit deep and successfully soak up pressure, nor to be adept at zipping the ball back and forth and back and forth for long stretches in harmless areas of the pitch, Liverpool practically ensure their own late-game vulnerability and have no strategy to cope. Klopp’s Plan A might be good enough to beat any team on any given matchday, but unless he develops a complementary style to fall back on to help see out games the Pool Boys are winning, they’re destined to suffer the same fate over and over.
(And anyway, the first penalty decision was completely correct, as the referees association noted in a statement. The second was maybe a little soft, but it wasn’t a heinous call by any means and is the exact kind of penalty teams are at risk of giving up when they turtle into their own penalty areas and rely on the cluttered bodies in the box and more than a few feverishly whispered prayers to withstand an attacking deluge.)
But what I most want to talk about is Mohamed Salah. Because Mohamed Salah is on God Mode this season.
The 25-year-old Egyptian forward scored twice against Spurs yesterday in a performance simultaneously as wondrous as it was predictable. In his 25 Premier League appearances, Salah has scored 21 times himself while assisting six more. His video game stats are just as impressive in the Champions League, where he’s found the back of the net five times in six matches. These are attacking numbers that only the very best of the best put up, and that elite company is exactly where he belongs during this star-making season.
Though the nickname is an obvious one (a Google search for “The Egyptian Messi” turns up nearly half a million results, and it’s safe to say the majority of those are related to Salah), the Premier League’s most lethal winger isn’t actually much like Messi at all. They are indeed both lefties who’ve spent lots of time out on the right wing, and are both phenomenal at cutting inside from those wide starting positions and flexing their unreal talents with the ball at their feet by beating defenders off the dribble before either finding a teammate for an assist or going it alone and scoring themselves. But how they accomplish those game-breaking moments differs widely.
Whereas Messi is more escape artist with his dribbling, his delicate touches and feints creating around him a thick fog of smoke in which whole swarms of defenders often get lost in, Salah is more of a brute. This reputation for raw physicality is understandable; there are few players in the sport who can match Salah’s searing speed step for step. The quintessential Salah play, then, includes a long pass played out into space on the counter, him flying down the pitch onto it, and opponent first right on his hip but gradually losing pace as Salah roars past. That’s when he shifts his body to open up a better shooting angle on his left foot and unleashes a cracking, curling shot that tests the tensility of the net. It’s this speed that he’s relied on most throughout his career to carry him past defenders and into scoring or assisting territory, and it’s also that reliance on speed that raised certain questions about just how good Salah could be on a truly elite team.
Salah’s first stint in England famously started in Chelsea in January of 2014. He never caught on there, and after only half a season he was pushed out of the side, first loaned and then sold off to Serie A clubs. In Italy with Fiorentina on loan for half a season and later with Roma for two years, Salah found his footing once again. With his speed and in a traditionally slower league, the Egyptian took Serie A by storm, scoring or setting up at least 20 goals in his two full years in Rome. These performances made Liverpool’s decision to sign him this summer pretty much a no-brainer, though there were still legitimate reasons to wonder if he could do in England what he had done in Italy.
The answer, as we all know by now, is that Liverpool Salah doesn’t really look like Roma Salah: this newest version is even better. Why that is can be traced in large part back to his answer to the doubts about his fit. With a big club that tends to dominate possession like Klopp’s Liverpool, Salah couldn’t rely as much on the same wide open spaces against inferior athletes the way he could in Italy. Thus a skeptic of whether Salah could reproduce his Roma form with Liverpool could point to this lack of space and Salah’s space-and-speed based game as justification for why the winger might struggle.
However, unbeknownst to most, Salah’s close control and decision making have vastly improved over the years. In a way, then, it was Salah’s newfound ability to do a better impression of Messi’s hallmark skill—dribbling into tiny crevices with the ball constantly stuck to his foot as if the two were attracted magnetically—that catapulted him into the conversation along with (though still way, way below) Messi as one of the world’s very best players.
His stupendous second goal against Tottenham was probably the closest thing to a Messi goal Salah has scored in his career. In the space of just 10 or so yards, Salah managed to tap the ball around and wring his body through four Spurs players, nip his way to the ball just before the keeper could get it, and roof it into the net for what should’ve been the game’s winning goal. It was breathtaking in the way all the best Messi-esque goals are.
Still, while definitely bearing a resemblance to the Argentine genius’s work, the unique fingerprints that indicate this goal was a Salah joint and not a Messi special are all over the place. He might not have broken out into a dead sprint, but it was that unique fast-forward acceleration of his that allowed him to beat his opponents to the ball after his cross was blocked; it was as much his physical strength as much as any artful agility that allowed him to literally hold off of the three other defenders while he inched his way through the penalty box; and the way he blasted the ball past the keeper was definitionally a Salah finish rather than the precisely placed low rollers Messi typically prefers. Salah isn’t Messi and doesn’t even really play much like him, but if there’s anyone not named Neymar who has a better claim to being the world’s second-best player so far this season, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a name more worthy than Salah’s.