Salah or Suarez: Who reigns supreme?

Salah or Suarez: Who reigns supreme?

28 league goals so far, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down: Mo Salah is blitzing his way through records as fast as he leaves defenders chasing dust on the pitch. It’s truly remarkable, seeing Salah develop into a second striker, as Klopp looks to wean the very best out of his skills. But having scored every 85 minutes in the league so far, the inevitable comparison to Liverpool’s last Golden Boot winner was always going to be made: Luis Suarez or Mo Salah?

With Salah likely to beat Suarez’s 31 league goals – the joint-best record in a 38 game Premier League season – and doing so from a wide position, Salah seems to be the one with the advantage in this matchup. As we know, though, football is so much more than goals – as those familiar to the ever-raging Messi-Ronaldo debate are all too aware. That being said, whilst not the whole picture, goals and assists are still as good a place to start as any.

Salah’s figures this season are simply phenomenal: 28 goals and 9 assists in 2424 minutes (i.e. a goal/assist every 65.5 minutes). Comparatively, Suarez, in the memorable 2013/14 season, scored 31 and assisted 12 in 2965 minutes – a goal/assist rate of every 68.9 minutes.

In terms of dribbles, shots, passes and key passes (all per 90), Suarez finds himself on top (2.8 vs. 2.6, 5.5 vs. 4.4, 38.4 vs. 30.3 and 2.7 vs. 2 per 90). In terms of shooting accuracy, Salah fares better with a 48pc shooting accuracy – 3pc higher than Suarez, but importantly in the entirety of 2013/14, Suarez missed 14 big chances, while Salah has missed 19 already this season. Furthermore, Suarez hit the woodwork 9 times, to Salah’s 3, while Suarez also created 22 big chances – 12 more than the 10 Salah has provided this season.

AI Tees

If we take a look at some advanced metrics, we can gain a little more detail on Salah’s impact this season (unfortunately, some of these are unavailable for Suarez in 2013/14).

xG90 NPxG90 xA90 NPxG90 + xA90 xGChain90 xGBuildup90
Salah 0.78 0.73 0.26 0.99 1.06 0.16
Suarez 0.54 0.54 0.31 0.85 N/A N/A

Despite the positional differences between these players, there are a number of similarities too: both Salah and Suarez found themselves as the main outlet within a system almost tailored to them and their strengths. This season, Salah finds himself taking up central positions and exploiting gaps which Roberto Firmino creates through dropping deep, while Sadio Mané on the other side provides a constant threat of both dribbling and scoring ability which Salah uses too. In 2013/14 Suarez found himself in a similar situation, with Sturridge opening up gaps for him, Coutinho and Sterling attracting opposition players or stretching opposing defences with their dribbling skills, and Gerrard releasing him from deep on occasion. Indeed, Salah and Suarez is and was the spearhead to their high-ante, aggressive and unabashedly offensive systems.

If we look at their output as a proportion of the team’s total output their impact becomes even more pronounced, for example, of the 73 goals Liverpool have scored thus far this season, Salah has directly contributed to 37 (28G 9A). That’s scoring 38.4pc of all LFC goals and a direct involvement in 50.7pc of all LFC league goals. For context, Messi has been directly involved in exactly 50pc of all Barcelona league goals this season. In terms of xG, Salah comprises 32.3pc of all LFC league xG (21.14 out of a total 65.36), and almost a fifth of all assists: 9 (from 50).

Likewise, Suarez scored 31 of Liverpool’s 101 league goals in 2013/14, which is a staggering 30.7pc of all goals scored, and accounting for assists, there’s a direct involvement in 42.6pc of all league goals.

Suarez, though, found himself as part of a fearsome double act, with Daniel Sturridge plundering 21 goals in 2013/14 – Salah though finds himself in a goalscoring class of his own, with the next two highest Liverpool goalscorers – Firmino and Mané – on 14 and 8 goals respectively. Furthermore, if we look at vital goals in the league (i.e. those that took the lead or won games) Salah (10), with several games left in the season, has the same as Suarez (10).

In terms of statistics, there really is not much between Salah and Suarez, and neither can be deemed a zero-sum benefactor of the system employed, for they both have enjoyed the positives of having a system that utilises their skill. Salah has the edge in goals and assists per 90, with it better than that of both Torres and Sturridge too, but despite the goalscoring prowess of the Egyptian heir apparent, it’s hard to get away from Suarez being a tour-de-force.

It’s this magical, unquantifiable factor about football and certain footballers which is the final part of this comparison. And while King Mo is set to break all the records, Luis Suarez was a barnstorming, breathtaking, blitzkrieg of Uruguayan black magic and wizardry. That’s not to say Salah has not come up with his own pieces of brilliance – he certainly has, we need only look at his strike against City or the deft display of close control against Spurs, but those moments of magic that Suarez made had far more weight to them, for each nutmeg or wonder strike was played out amongst the backdrop of a title challenge.

So then, to the question of who reigns supreme. The figures above indicate that Mo Salah is going to beat Suarez’s goals and assists records for a single season, and if that’s how you rank players, it’s a pretty simple affair – Mo Salah is the man. However, if not, it’s likely a matter of taste and preference – what do you prefer, silky but tenacious South American brilliance, or brain-shudderingly rapid African excellence?

I find myself torn: usually in this situation, I’d ask myself which player I’d prefer on my team, but the issue is you’d be hard-pressed to find two players more suitable for their respective teams; Suarez and Sturridge, backed up by Coutinho and Sterling in that diamond was a match made in heaven, but then Mané, Firmino, Salah (and formerly Coutinho) have a synergy, dynamism and fluency almost impossible to find elsewhere in Europe.

Had Suarez led Liverpool to Premier League glory, I have a suspicion that this would be a one-sided discussion, but if anything, that leaves the door open for Mo Salah – to put this debate to bed, in the Champions League. Whether he can do that, and make my job a tad easier is something we can only wait and see about.

Nonetheless, Salah still has a great deal more to give to Liverpool this season, and considering how brilliant he has been so far, who would dare rule anything out?

Goals/assists/passes etc. data sourced from Whoscored.com
Advanced metrics for Salah sourced from Understat.com
Advanced metrics for Suarez sourced from Ted Knutson (Statsbomb) @mixedknuts