Liverpool’s 3-0 win at Burnley on Saturday shows that last season’s Premier League runners-up are continuing to make progress. Burnley have posed Jürgen Klopp real problems since his appointment on Merseyside, not always getting a result but constantly breaching Liverpool’s defence. There was no great danger of that at the weekend, but the positives from a convincing win at a tough away ground were somewhat overshadowed. Instead, attention turned to a potential rift in the Liverpool squad. Worse still, it concerned players who will be utterly pivotal to their hopes of overcoming Manchester City and going one better in the league this season.
When Liverpool have won big in the past, the names of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have often graced the same scoresheet. The relationship between the club’s fearsome front three has been a key catalyst to transforming a team from hopefuls to European champions. For that reason, when Mané was enraged at being substitute just moments after Salah had opted not to put him in on goal, the narrative was that there was trouble in paradise. Not long before, Salah had also attempted to go for goal himself rather than picking out Firmino in a far more favourable position.
Tellingly, Salah, unlike his fellow forwards, had failed to find the net at Turf Moor. Regardless of the level you are playing at, if your teammates are scoring goals, it is tempting to force your way in on the act – at times to the detriment of the team. Had Liverpool been drawing the game or just winning by a single goal, Salah’s decision-making may have been very different. You don’t score the number of goals he has without taking the greedy option every once in a while, but is it unfair to say he is overly selfish.
Salah is undoubtedly more individualistic in his play than his teammates, but he is also more effective in the final third. He is better at picking up positions not only to shoot for himself but pick out a teammate to do the same. He ranks tenth for chances created in the Premier League since the start of last season, with 77. That’s way above either Mané (55) or Firmino (46).
The modest number of chances the Brazilian creates may come as a surprise to some, but there is a reason for that. His job is to operate further from goal, allowing his wide teammates to bomb on in attempt to stretch the play and get behind the opposition’s defence. Firmino, after all, has attempted to pass with more than 70% of his overall touches since the start of last season, with Mané’s equivalent figure just over 65% and Salah’s just under 60%.
Salah shoots more often than his teammates, doing so with 7.5% of his touches to Mané’s 4.8% and Firmino’s 4.7%. He also attempts more dribbles, doing so with 8.1% of his touches to Mané’s 5.5% and Firmino’s 4.5%. Crucially though, his end product more than compensates for what some might see as selfishness. While Mané scored as many goals as Salah last season (the pair shared the Golden Boot in the Premier League with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), he managed just one assist – a tally he has already matched this campaign. Salah, by comparison, set up eight league goals last season and has set up two already this campaign.
Mané and Salah have an exceptional partnership, the most productive in the squad. They have set up chances for each other 40 times since the start of last season, with Mané setting up Salah 23 times and Salah returning the favour on 17 occasions. The combination between Salah and Firmino is not far behind, on 38; Salah has teed up the Brazilian 21 times, being paid back with 17 chances in return.
Interestingly, the link-up between Firmino and Mané is not nearly as effective. They have combined to create a chance for one another just 20 times since the start of last season – exactly half what Salah and Mané have achieved. Again, Liverpool are at their most productive when Salah is involved.
With regards to Mané’s outburst on the sidelines on Saturday, it is natural to become even more concerned with one’s goal return in a team that scores so many. It sparks competition among teammates that may at times boil over into what some might consider petulance – see Sergio Agüero’s reaction to being withdrawn for Gabriel Jesus last month. With the right guidance and coaching, that competition can breed great success.
Should Salah have passed to his teammates when they were in better positions to score at Burnley? Of course. Would he have done so under different circumstances with the scoreline less comfortable? History, in terms of his own returns by way of chances created and assists when compared to his teammates, suggests he probably would.
Throw in the fact that footballers have personal lives and mood swings outside of the game and one might come to the conclusion that Mané was just more wound up than usual. Only time will tell if there is any genuine lasting friction between the players, but perhaps the international break will do everyone involved some good.
The Guardian Sport