Where Does Salah Rank Among Europe’s Best?

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The nature of the conversation around Mo Salah has indeed shifted in recent weeks, culminating in a significant shift following Liverpool’s 5-0 win over Watford. Salah was of course, entirely unplayable on Saturday, scoring four and assisting Bobby Firmino’s goal, but that performance was only the cherry on top of what has been a truly elite season for Salah. His 28 goals make him the top scorer in the top five European leagues, with nobody contributing more than his 37 goals and assists.

So the question is no longer how good is Mo Salah compared to the likes of Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez in the Premier League, but how does Mo stack up against the world’s elite? Well, I did a bit of digging, to try and find out.

First of all, some preliminaries. I wanted to compare Mo with players in a similar position, and of an elite level. So I picked the obvious names: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar. I also picked Dybala as he’s probably the closest Mo comparison in Serie A, and then I added Kane as his closest contender in the PL, and Lewandowski, as the top goalscorer in Germany. Not all of these players play as wingers obviously, with some outright strikers, so comparisons in all areas won’t be expected to be fair.

The second thing to note is that this is not saying: Mo is as good as Messi/Ronaldo etc. I’m not saying Mo is in that elite calibre; I’m merely comparing stats. Stats don’t tell you everything that you want or need to know, and I’m just looking at some of the numbers. I will, however, try to draw some comparisons and points of note from this season.

A couple of final quick points. I’m only comparing league performances, and all numbers will be per 90 unless stated otherwise.

So let’s start with some basics. Regarding goals and assists, Mo’s 28 goals and 37 goals and assists in 2394 minutes give him a G/90 of 1.05 and a GA/90 of 1.39. This is as good a baseline to start at as any. Here’s how the others stack up in comparison:

Mo – 28 goals; 9 assists; 1.05 G/90; 1.39 GA/90

Messi – 25 goals; 12 assists; 0.91 G/90; 1.35 GA/90

CR7 – 22 goals; 5 assists; 0.97 G/90; 1.19 GA/90

Neymar – 19 goals; 13 assists; 0.96 G/90; 1.61 GA/90

Dybala – 17 goals; 3 assists; 0.92 G/90; 1.08 GA/90

Kane – 24 goals; 2 assists; 0.88 G/90; 0.95 GA/90

Lewa – 23 goals; 1 assist; 1.11 G/90; 1.16 GA/90

So regarding base end-product, of this set of elite players, only Lewandowski is scoring at a better rate than Salah, and only Neymar has a better rate of goal contribution. As we can see, the majority of the elite forwards on the list don’t tend to contribute as many assists as Mo, which is why he tends to have higher numbers overall. Regarding brute numbers, his best match is Messi, who is also on 37 goals and assists with a slightly higher sample of minutes.

However, it’s also worth having a look at some of the underlying numbers, to see if Mo is over-performing, or if his peers are under-performing this year. Mo’s total xG is 21.14 in the league this year for his 28 goals, meaning his xG/90 is 0.78, and his ratio of goals to xG is 1.32. Here’s how the others compare.

Mo – 21.14 xG; 0.78 xG/90; 1.32 G/xG.

Messi – 23.00 xG; 0.84 xG/90; 1.09 G/xG

CR7 – 24.12 xG; 1.06 xG/90; 0.91 G/xG

Neymar – 16.54 xG; 0.83 xG/90; 1.15 G/xG

Dybala – 10.41 xG; 0.56 xG/90; 1.63 G/xG

Kane – 23.99 xG; 0.88 xG/90; 1.00 G/xG

Lewa – 22.71 xG; 1.10 xG/90; 1.01 G/xG

So looking at the underlying xG stats, we can see that Mo is perhaps slightly over-performing his xG, especially compared to the other players around him. The majority fit into the bracket of 0.9-1.15 goals per xG, with Dybala, the obviously unsustainable outsider.

The average ratio in the top five leagues this season is 0.988 goals per expected goal, with La Liga the only league where the number of goals scored is grossly below the xG – 760 goals from 797.89 xG which is still 0.95 goals per xG.

So overall, most of the elite players mentioned are not hugely above average in terms of their finishing, they just get themselves into brilliant positions to score goals time and time again. Salah is no exception – his xG is the second highest in the league behind Kane and fifth highest in Europe, behind Kane, Messi, Ronaldo and Lewandowski.

That suggests that even if Salah does drop back a little towards the others in terms of finishing – and there’s no reason to suggest he will give that his G/xG ratio in Serie A over two seasons at Roma was 1.27 anyway – he would still be scoring in the mid-20s. Before the Watford game, Salah’s G/xG ratio was almost exactly 1.2, and he was still the joint top-scorer in Europe.

Regarding all-around play, factoring in creativity and dribbling, this is where Salah starts to separate himself from the strikers. Beginning with creativity then, Salah’s xA is 7.02, his xA/90 is 0.26, and his key passes is 2.0. Here you’ll start to see a pattern developing.

Mo – 7.02 xA; 0.26 xA/90; 2.0 KP

Messi – 13.01 xA; 0.48 xA/90; 2.7 KP

CR7 – 5.28 xA; 0.23 xA/90; 1.5 KP

Neymar – 12.28 xA; 0.62 xA/90; 3.5 KP

Dybala – 3.08 xA; 0.17 xA/90; 1.9 KP

Kane – 3.06 xA; 0.11 xA/90; 1.0 KP

Lewa – 1.98 xA; 0.10 xA/90; 0.9 KP

In many respects, there’s nothing surprising about this data. The outright strikers – Kane and Lewandowski – don’t tend to offer very much creatively. The top wingers – Messi and Neymar – are absolutely off the charts. The only genuine surprise is probably just exactly how good Neymar has been, with his 0.62 xA/90 easily outstripping the rest of Europe’s top creators – Messi, Dahoud in Bundesliga (0.47 xA/90) and KDB in England (0.40 xA/90).

And Mo fits nicely in the middle ground along with Ronaldo and Dybala, albeit with better numbers than both. These players seem to be genuine wide-forwards (or in Dybala’s case a number 10), which debunks the theory (along with any heat map really) that Mo is playing as a striker.

So we can see that where Mo is not yet anywhere near the calibre of Messi and Neymar is in terms of creativity, and the creativity numbers are backed up reasonably effectively by dribbling numbers.

Mo – 2.6 successful take-on per 90; success rate of 65%.

Messi – 5.4 STOs; 69% success

CR7 – 1.3  STOs; 65% success

Neymar – 7.1 STOs; 66% success

Dybala – 3.5 STOs; 70% success

Kane – 1.4 STOs; 45% success

Lewa – 0.8 STOs; 29% success

Same story here. Strikers don’t really dribble. Messi is dead good at football. Neymar is treating Ligue One like a joke. Mo fits into that block with Dybala and Ronaldo, making him a very decent dribbler, but nowhere near Messi or Neymar.

The picture that all of these stats are helping to build is, in my interpretation, the following:

Mo Salah is on a hot streak that makes him the top elite goalscorer in Europe at this moment. His underlying stats suggest that maybe he’s not the best goalscorer in Europe, but that on current form, in this Liverpool team, he’s not massively over-performing and thus is somewhere close to being one of the best goalscorers in Europe.

Mo is managing this despite not having the typical profile of a striker, and certainly seems to be in more of the mould of a wide-forward or elite level winger, or supporting striker, as his numbers match more closely with those who aren’t out and out goalscorers like Lewandowski and Kane.

That said, Mo doesn’t quite stack up to the true greats of the current time, Messi and Neymar when it comes to all-round, overall play. His dribbling and creativity simply aren’t close to those two, who are on a completely other level when it comes to all-round play.

Overall though, I think it’s fair to say that Mo Salah stacks up pretty nicely compared to the current crop of best players in the world. Right now he simply is one of Europe’s elite.

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  1. Excellent work. You should be writing for the FT or Guardian or approach Michael Edwards for a job. You may want to use graphical charts to more clearly illustrate the numbers.

    There’s been a debate in the Irish Independent and Guardian about Salahs role – ‘the striker who comes in from out wide’. This is a valuable contribution.

    A cluster analysis may have helped identify the three segments of players you appear to have identified here.


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