The Player of the Year awards are a strange affair for one reason that annoys people year after year: that they are voted on months before the season ends.
This year, the winner is likely to be Kevin de Bruyne. That’s an entirely fair choice, of course: the Belgian midfielder has slotted into a new role this season at the Etihad Stadium and will be part of a title-winning team this year. He’s been a sensation going forward, and his contribution to his side’s defensive duties have been important and perhaps undersung – his pressing and tackling this season have often gone under the radar.
He is a special player totally deserving of the award.
But you can’t help but feel that if most Premier League players were voting right now, instead of a few weeks ago, Mohamed Salah might be running the Belgian a bit closer. Indeed, Eden Hazard’s revelation that he voted for De Bruyne over Salah and Harry Kane hints at it. Over the last few weeks, Salah has really begun to motor even further.
That’s led to some strange comparisons, though. The one that sticks out is Lionel Messi.
In fairness, the first person to compare the two this season surely did so in jest, or at least in order to pay the Egyptian the ultimate compliment. But since then, it’s stuck: the more people say it, the more ridiculous the comparison appears to be. He may well be on world class form, but Mohamed Salah would have to keep that up for several seasons in order to be put in the same bracket as Messi.
Perhaps the reason to make that comparison is partly his current form and partly his ability on the ball, jinking past defenders like the Barcelona number 10.
But that’s where comparisons end, certainly in terms of style,
Messi is The Greatest not just because of his preternatural abilities but because of his willingness to join the dots for his team. He drops back to collect the ball and is one of his team’s most effective passers. He is involved in everything his team does.
Salah isn’t that kind of player, he is an attacker who comes alive when the ball is near him. It is futile trying to call him a striker because of his position on the right hand side of an attacking three. Yet it is simply unhelpful to label him a winger because he doesn’t do the job of a traditional winger. He is playing in a position football doesn’t yet have vocabulary to describe.
He’s not the only player to play this role, though. Indeed, he’s not even the best.
For years, Cristiano Ronaldo has been doing the same thing, albeit on the opposite side. The Real Madrid star has the same number of goals as Salah this season, despite starting the campaign well off form and his side well back in the league.
Ronaldo is the better comparison in terms of position, though. He is an attacker who doesn’t fit the winger mould, nor is he a traditional central striker. But instead he starts on the wing and drifts inside thanks to the space left by a central attacker who is picked for his ability to make space for the main man.
And yet, just as comparisons to Messi fall short because of the length of time the Argentinian has been at the top of the sport, comparisons to Ronaldo are also flawed.
There can be no doubt that Salah’s goals this season would have been revelatory had his position been traditional and defined. But perhaps the fact it’s not is what is driving such strange comparisons.
Messi and Ronaldo are a class above everyone else and have been for quite a number of years. But perhaps what unites both of those players besides their goalscoring prowess and their five Ballons d’Or is their positions, neither of whom have them nailed down.
This season, Mohamed Salah is getting the same treatment. And maybe our difficulty in describing his position is part of the lore.