Why it’s still too soon to put Mohamed Salah in the bracket of world-class

With the most league goals of any player involved in Europe’s five leading top flights this season and now just four strikes away from setting a new record for goals scored by a single player in a 38-game Premier League campaign, Mohamed Salah’s incredible potency in attack this term has made the debate over whether he qualifies as world-class an increasingly unavoidable one.

Of course, that term means different things to different people and comes with a wide variety of interpretations. But if we take it as meaning belonging to an elite bracket of the very best around, Salah’s output this season is unquestionably up there. When assists are added to the equation, he’s contributed to more league goals than Cristano Ronaldo, Neymar and Eden Hazard this season and the same number, 37, as Lionel Messi.

However, there is a subtle yet significance difference between a world-class player and a player enjoying world-class form, and at this moment of Salah’s career, not even a full season into his affluent spell at Liverpool, it’s still unclear which category the Egyptian attacker truly belongs to – whether his current levels are sustainable or have been created by a perfect storm of Liverpool’s relentless attacking impetus, the eagerness to impress during his first campaign at a new club and the manner in which he’s caught so many English teams off-guard following an underwhelming previous stint in the Premier League with Chelsea.

There is another key question at the heart of this debate as well; sometimes strikers are enjoying such a rich vein of confidence and fortune that they simply can’t miss in front of goal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re world-class goalscorers, let alone world-class players. Then-Sunderland’s Kevin Phillips once won Europe’s Golden Boot award, while back in 1997/98 the Premier League Golden Boot was split between Dion Dublin, Chris Sutton and Michael Owen. Only the latter of those four can claim to have been widely considered a truly world-class player for a substantial period of his career.

And while an analysis of Salah belonging to that bracket shouldn’t hinge on statistics alone, there is certainly something telling about the Liverpool attacker’s returns this season compared to likeminded forwards of world-class calibre – Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi and Hazard. Out of the five, Salah ranks in the bottom two for successful dribbles, chances created and shots per game this season, and the percentages also hint at a worrying inconsistency that has been evident at times too.

Salah ranks bottom for pass completion and dribble success rate while only Ronaldo has hit the target with less frequency this term. That’s not a huge surprise either; particularly at the start of the season, the 25-year-old was needing four or five chances to hit the net, albeit creating the vast majority of them himself. Compare that to someone like Hazard for example, a forward who finds the net less frequently but has performed at least 7% better than Salah on those three fronts.

It could be argued that Hazard is therefore the better player, because he achieves what he attempts on the pitch with a greater consistency.

Goals are, of course, worth invaluably more than any collection of chances created, dribbles and shots combined, but it does force the consideration of whether Salah – who Transfermarkt value at £72million – would be considered such a devastating player if he were finding the net with slightly less regularity this season. Would we be quite as impressed with a forward who doesn’t even rank in the Premier League’s top ten for dribbles per match, and is currently surpassed in terms of chance creation by Pascal Gross and Ben Davies?

Mohamed Salah's stats from a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United

Ashley Young’s dominance over Salah a fortnight ago in the Northwest derby too, creates some doubts over his world-class credentials, highlighting a crucial factor.

The England international has been fantastic at left-back for Manchester United all season, but this is still a converted winger we’re talking about, one who has been dribbled past the most times, 19, of any player to feature at No.3 in the Premier League throughout 2017/18.

Salah should’ve had a field day at Old Trafford, especially during a second half Liverpool dominated, but the 56-cap international constantly found his path blocked as he continuously cut inside onto Young’s stronger foot.

Ashley Young's stats from Man United's 2-1 win over Liverpool

And that’s perhaps the key with Salah right now – he’s still enjoying the luxury of opposition defenders not quite yet working him out, the best way to stifle his very specific game.

Using a right-footer at left-back may well be the solution – he also struggled against Serge Aurier in the 4-1 defeat to Tottenham earlier this season – but the wider issue is how every team in the Premier League will have their own ideas for containing him next term. His performances this season have simply been too potent, relentless and frenetic for anybody to work out an obvious antidote.

In some senses though, that’s only testament to how clever, inventive and modern a player Salah actually is. We’ve become well acquainted with wingers drifting inside in the Premier League, but what the Liverpool star does is markedly different – those recurring, penetrative central runs between the centre-backs are certainly unorthodox, and at times give the aura of a ground-breaking ploy that will become commonplace across Europe in the years to come.

Unfortunately, statistical analysis of the beautiful game is yet to reach a point where it adequately acknowledges decisive movement, let alone determine its effectiveness.

Watford players fail to block Mohamed Salah's shot

And yet, there is still a feeling that Salah’s unique inside runs are just another aspect of his game that elite defenders could soon come to master, a process which could drastically change how the Reds ace is perceived. Right now, there’s no question Salah is scoring goals on reputation as much as ability – the sight of four Watford defenders flailing to the floor last Saturday as the former Roma star squeezed a shot between all of them was testament to that – and so perhaps the ultimate question is what happens when Salah doesn’t have that same fear factor, when defenders have worked out ploys to contain his threat, when everybody in the Premier League knows precisely what to expect from him.

That is why, for all the incredible performances Salah has put in this season, and for all the goalscoring records he may break come the summer, judgement of his world-class credentials must be reserved for another year, once the ever-problematic follow-up campaign is proven to be a success or failure.

His Liverpool form hasn’t taken place in a vacuum – he was one of the top performers in Serie A for two-and-a-half years before moving to Anfield – but this remains the only season of his career in which he’s scored more than 19 goals across all competitions, and it’s that extra firepower which has pushed the debate to this point.

Right now, he still feels like a player enjoying world-class form, rather than a truly world-class player.