Liverpool have one of the most exciting and dynamic attacks in the Premier League through Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, but if Jurgen Klopp cannot convince the former to change his ways, he will build a reputation for diving that will turn the world against the Reds.
It will become the title defining rhetoric whenever Liverpool leave Anfield, as the crowds hound the referee whenever the Egyptian is fouled and call the 62-cap international’s bluff whenever he goes down easy.
Recent incidents, while there has been some contact, are already painting the picture that the 26-year-old would rather go to ground than stay on his feet, when really the winger could easily stay upright and conjure a chance to score.
Liverpool’s Boxing Day clash with Newcastle was the turning point for Salah, as the former Roma star felt a slight tug on his shoulder from Paul Dummett and let his feet fall under his body, as he flung himself forwards as if he had leapt from a cliff face into the crisp, shimmering ocean beneath.
Referee Graham Scott then had a decision to make and sided with the forward. As there was contact, no matter how minimal, Salah escaped retrospective action from the Football Association’s panel.
One incident like this would never be enough to suffice a reputation for diving, but just three days later the Egyptian was embroiled in controversy all over again when Liverpool demolished Arsenal.
Unlike the Dummett ‘tug’, this penalty had more evidence to support it being awarded as defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos had attempted to hack the ball away from the 26-year-old’s feet and appeared to catch his heel instead.
But Salah did himself no favours with his theatrical fall to the ground, and with the score already 3-1, could have saved himself the hassle of doubt by trying to play the ball towards the penalty spot where he had three teammates to fire home, having already outmuscled the Greek international.
A few games then went by without an incident for the Egyptian, and in both Liverpool lost – firstly to Manchester City as the title race gap narrowed and then in the FA Cup to Wolves, with Salah a late second-half substitute.
Yet upon their return to Premier League action, Salah brought the attention on himself again with another theatrical fall, this time when under pressure from Brighton’s Pascal Gross.
The midfielder, like Sokratis and Dummett before, appeared to make contact with the Liverpool winger, but the forward once again made the most of whatever contact there was, and the resulting penalty ultimately decided the tie to keep the Reds four points clear of the chasing Man City.
Take away the points gained, and the Citizens would be snapping at Liverpool’s heels.
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Given there was contact in each situation, it is impossible to call Salah a diver. But that does not mean the question is null and void; going down easy or buying contact will keep it at the front of the minds of not only other fans, but officials and managers across the country.
Ashley Young famously gained a reputation for buying contact when he moved to Manchester United from Aston Villa and as soon as officials twigged onto his theatrical ways, the Englishman stopped gaining free-kicks and penalties.
The same went for Wilfried Zaha after he made his ultimately failed transfer to Old Trafford from Crystal Palace, and the Ivorian continues to carry the burden of those errors now he’s back with the Eagles.
Zaha may not officially be the most fouled player in the Premier League – that honour belongs to Brighton’s Glenn Murray by some way – but the Palace forward will regularly be kicked and hacked by the opponents and forced to play on knowing the decisions will not go his way.
When Gareth Bale went from Tottenham flop to Spurs sensation and earned his move to Real Madrid, the Welshman also had to fight off critics saying he went to ground easy as he looked to protect himself from ever-increasing fouls.
Like Young, Zaha and Bale, Salah must learn from the errors of his ways and Klopp must insist that the histrionics are brought to an end before things go too far.
If Salah continues to keep up his theatrics, it is only a matter of time before the decisions start going the other way when you add in managers constantly reminding officials in pre-match press conferences and the howls from the grandstands whenever he goes down.
The argument that you need to go to ground to earn fouls is irrelevant, as the argument should be the opposite. Referees should be confident in making the right calls for free-kicks or penalties at the sight of a tug or a clip, rather than waiting for the player to hit the deck and make the decision for them.
When Video Assistant Referees are introduced full-time in England next season, there is a great chance that potential dives are given as dives and actual fouls are brought back to the spot of the incident. We saw it at the World Cup in Russia and we should be glad when VAR stamps it out in the Premier League.