Curious case of Salah proving strangely hypnotic
Once again he was Liverpool’s best attacker – but his finishing now weirdly awry
Mo Salah: In the last few weeks he has found space relentlessly, has made chances relentlessly and has missed chances relentlessly. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Watching Mo Salah warm up before this game was to be struck by exactly the wrong thing. There is usually a kind of shock factor to seeing elite athletes close up, a moment of higher-species recognition. For example, watching Harry Kane run through his shooting routine before the Champions League game at the San Siro two weeks ago was to be struck by how astonishingly good Kane is when it comes to the basic business of battering a football into the tiniest of spaces.
With Salah, not so much. Instead he fluffed and shanked and screwed and peppered the advert boards. Eventually he shrugged and wandered off, unbothered. But then Salah is unlike any other player in many ways. He was unlike any other player last season too during that period of rock and roll madness when he seemed unable to miss. And he was unlike anyone else on the pitch at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, a man who seemed to be still carrying that personal pocket of space around even as he continued to make and squander chances, as wasteful as a decadent lord.
At the end of this mannered, occasionally fraught goalless draw Salah was one of the last players to wander off the Anfield pitch. There was a hand-slap from Pep Guardiola in the centre circle, not quite consolation, not quite sympathy. As he got close to the tunnel Salah slowed and looked around with just a hint of weariness.
It has been a fascinating turn from the reigning player of the year this season. This is man who scored with a Messi-level fury for a single sunlit year. But who now has four goals in his last sixteen games, one in his last seven, none in four. No doubt the whisper of a Salah backlash will continue, with reactions that range from sympathy for a player whose gears just look awry; to acceptance that last year was unrepeatable; to the suggestion what we’re witnessing here is the biggest Egyptian fraud since the curse of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Poor form is nothing new of course. But the strange case of Mo Salah is much more interesting. It would be wrong to suggest he had a bad game here. Instead he had a weird game, a lop-sided, almost-there kind of game. It would be wrong to say Salah was invisible or that he faded to the edges. He was instead highly visible, planting himself in the centre of every meaningful Liverpool attack, and only then seeming to wink out, a man unable to remember what it is he does when he does what he does.
But then Salah is an odd player all-round. There is an imbalance to his talent, like a supercar with a wonky pram wheel on one wing. It shouldn’t be this easy to run into space or get the wrong side of a defender. Salah makes it look like a walk to the newsagents. If his finishing was on he’d have had a hat trick at Chelsea the other day. Here he scuffed his first shot wide with four minutes gone, having made the space on his own with another of those effortless bursts behind Aymeric Laporte.
Early in the second half he found a bizarrely huge pocket of space right in the middle of a crowd penalty area, but side-footed straight at Ederson. Later Salah ran on to Robertson’s long pass, adjusted his stride, glanced up, angled his body and then shinned the ball wildly miles over the bar. And not just miles over the bar, but miles wide too, a skirling fading horror of a shot.
This has been the Salah paradox. Once again was Liverpool’s best attacker. But his highlights reel will still cut down into a series of scuffs and bloopers, a smooth, incisive high speed runner right up until the moment he gets anywhere near goal, when he becomes, a man with blocks of balsa wood for feet.
Before kick off there had been a crackle of genuine electricity around Anfield’s clanky grey stands. On days like these the Kop becomes a giant noise funnel, draped in its fond pageantry of flags and banners, sending the full force of that single tier barrelling down on to the pitch.
In the event the reality was a little different. For a meeting of the Premier League’s most ravenous attacking forces, this was a distinctly non-ravenous, attack-free spectacle. As a claustrophobic second half wore on Liverpool desperately needed someone in midfield to run on and break up the straight lines of the front six. Jordan Henderson drives forward willingly but without any real devil, legs pumping, back straight, like a cavalry officer trotting through the ranks.
With six minutes to go it looked as though a decisive moment had arrived. Leroy Sane, a belated substitute, was tripped skating through on the left side of the area. Riyadh Mahrez lined up the penalty, paused, tiptoed in, then spanked the ball so high it almost breezed up above the line of the stand. This was a penalty kick as horror show, the penalty kick as absurdist one-man protest against the everyday reality of an 85th minute winning goal late on Sunday afternoon with the skies closing in, a long journey home and work tomorrow morning.
From here it is to be hoped Salah will just keep on coming. The idea he was ever going to see off Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to win the ballon d’or looks a little fanciful: this is a creative attacking player with three Premier League assists since February. But for all the strangeness, the feeling of a man operating to his own set of sporting rules, he is still finding that Salah space, still playing on Salah time, still seeing the goal in front of him.