There is no doubt that Mo Salah’s first Liverpool season has been staggering and the Egyptian has exceeded all expectations.
Saturday’s 5-0 thumping of Watford saw the forward perform at his most clinical, scoring four goals from four shots on target as he moved four goals ahead of the injured Harry Kane in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot.
He now has 28 goals in the league this season, and has 36 in all competitions, which puts him one ahead of Lionel Messi as Europe’s top scorer. The question is; how do you stop him?
It is a conundrum that has stumped managers at home and abroad this term but Football FanCast set out our suggested solutions before giving you the chance to have your say…
There has been some confusion over Salah’s actual position. He is nominally fielded on the right of a front three and Liverpool fans sing about him “running down the wing” but in fact, he plays more like a second striker.
Salah frequently wanders in from his flank without the ball and positions himself as a second striker, looking to burst through the centre of the opposition defence to score wherever possible.
This means that defences can set up like they’re playing against a front two when facing Salah and one way to do that is with a back three, to maintain a spare man at the back at all times.
Of course, the downside is that a three-man defence is a specialist system; it is not really one that a team can just switch to and from without being exceptionally well-drilled, as Watford found at their peril on Saturday.
However, Swansea City executed it to perfection in January’s 1-0 home win over the Reds, limiting the space available to Salah expertly. Treating the Egyptian like a striker can bear fruit.
No individual opponent has marshalled Salah as well as Ashley Young did in Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool earlier this month.
The former Aston Villa man defended narrowly, sticking close to the centre-halves and also pushed Salah inside, with Young confident that his own right foot could stop Salah being dangerous with his left.
Not many left-backs in the Premier League are right-footed; it is an awkward fit in an era when full-backs are expected to overlap at will, as the example of Cuco Martina at Everton shows. That makes it a risk.
Nevertheless, a direct opponent who is comfortable with showing Salah inside onto his stronger left foot because he can then tackle with his right might well by the best way to deal with him. It certainly worked for Young.
While Young did well against Salah, he was helped by being able to move him into zones occupied by Chris Smalling and Nemanja Matic. It was a team effort.
Another strategy teams could look to employ is a man marking job. Obviously, it is a tough demand for a manager to make on an individual player. It requires extreme fitness and concentration and becomes even more difficult if the marker picks up a yellow card.
However, one way around that is to ask different players to rotate the man-marking throughout the match. The left-back, a centre-half and a holding midfielder could all be detailed to track Salah’s movement.
The other factor that makes this a viable strategy is that Salah does not pop up all over the pitch – this is also the element that most makes the comparisons with Lionel Messi inaccurate.
Rather, he prefers to lurk in and around the penalty area, concentrating his efforts on small bursts in the most dangerous zones of the pitch. That means that man marking him need not be a 90-minute exercise in chasing shadows all over the park. Stick with Salah in and around the box, stop his little bursts and it could work.
An aura has developed around Salah, just as it does around all players who can seem unplayable at times. The very fact that we are discussing how to stop him goes to show how big an ask it is for opposition managers to figure out and for their players to execute.
That has created a situation where opponents are so worried about what Salah might do to them – a little nutmeg or a feint to leave them embarrassed – that they are backing off and backing off.
How many times have we seen the Egyptian score a very similar goal, darting in from the right, faced by no shortage of bodies but none of them make a tackle, allowing him to poke home?
Watford were probably the most extreme example, afraid to lay a glove on Salah and thus allowing him the freedom of Anfield to cut inside and fire away at will. Opponents need to believe that he can be stopped and play with the conviction to prove it.
So, we’re asking you, what is the best way to stop Salah? Let us know by voting on the poll below…