Sadio Mane and Mo Salah's 2019 Role-Reversal
Sadio Mané has taken the Premier League by storm in 2019, scoring eight goals in Liverpool’s ten league games this calendar, including seven in his last five at Anfield. However, on the other hand, Liverpool’s top scorer and attacking talisman Mo Salah has slowed the scoring stakes, scoring just four goals in his last ten, firing blanks in seven of his last ten games, having failed to score in just three of his previous ten starts.
So what has shifted between the two forwards? Is it luck? Poor finishing? Decent chances? Or some combination of them all? I wanted to dig a little deeper into some of the underlying numbers to see what the forwards are doing differently in 2019.
Starting with the positives then, which is the explosive form of Sadio Mané. Sadio has been an absolutely pivotal member of this Liverpool team for several years now, but in 2019 he has found himself elevated to probably the best form of his Liverpool career and has quickly become the Reds’ most important attacker this year.
Mané’s explosive pace, ability to take defenders out of the game and finesse with both feet have always made him a real menace for opposition defenders. What’s exciting is that not only is he on a hot streak but that he’s finding different ways to score goals – increasingly adding headers to his game but also rediscovering the distinctive goalscoring touch that made him such a magnificent hit when he first joined the club in the summer of 2016.
And if we look at the underlying numbers, they seem to back up the view that Sadio really is just on a real hot streak. His eight goals in 2019 have come from 5.17 xG. He’s had seven big chances, scoring four of them, and four goals from non-big chances too. Clearly, there’s a level of over-performance here that wasn’t present here earlier in the season – although Sadio’s first eight goals did come from 6.9 xG. His over-performance ratio is 1.32 goals per expected goal, which is about halfway between where Mo and Bobby were firing last year, so certainly sustainable over a season.
But what’s also present is an increasing role as the focal point of the attack. In the 2018 half of this season, Mané had 2.39 shots per 90 and 0.41 xG/90, compared with 2.58 shots per 90 and 0.53 xG per 90 in 2019 so far. So there’s been a moderate increase in his involvement in the attack, as well as a decrease in his creativity to match; with his key passes and xA/90 both down from 1.31 and 0.17 to 0.93 and 0.06 respectively.
We can see that Sadio’s role has adjusted slightly this calendar year, in part due to issues with Roberto Firmino but even so, Sadio is on a hot streak. That is to say, he’s in absolutely fine form, and scoring some absolutely vital and brilliant goals.
And so onto Mo Salah, who seems to be having all of the bad luck at the moment. Salah has been causing defences a lot of problems, notably against Watford and Burnley, but without any end product to show for it. There’s no doubt that Salah is an incredibly talented forward, and probably one of the top five attackers in Europe when he’s at his best, so what’s going on with him?
One logical answer might be that if Mané is playing in a more focal point role than Salah might be assuming a more creative role and that he might be sharing the load a bit more. The latter part of that sentence is certainly true, but worryingly the former isn’t.
Salah and Mané have had almost identical xG over the past ten games – with Salah at 5.07 – 0.51 per 90. He’s scored four goals in that time, whilst Sadio has scored eight. So whilst partly it’s mostly about Sadio being a more clinical finisher and being on fire than it is about Mo necessarily doing anything wrong, there’s still, in my opinion, some cause for concern.
Whilst Sadio has been on a higher xG over the last few months, Mo is significantly lower, as his xG/90 in the 2018 section of this season was 0.68, 0.17 higher than it has been since. Mo is also shooting less, whilst Sadio was shooting more – 3.11 shots per 90, down from 3.66.
However, there are two aspects to Mo’s performance that I find particularly worrying. The first is that all four of his goals have come from big chances (and/or penalties). In fact, including his penalties against Newcastle and Arsenal, Mo has only scored three non-penalty goals since Wolves on 21st December, and none from chances below 0.4 xG. Whilst this sort of thing isn’t a long-term worry, it’s merely a slightly frustrating and painful regression to the mean after last year – Mo was probably due a visit from the finishing pixie, I’d certainly say it’s a worry that our most influential attacker is struggling to find the net during a critical period of our season.
The more frustrating aspect of Mo’s form in 2019 is that creatively, he appears to have dropped off a cliff. Last year, he was creating 2.31 key passes per 90 and 0.40 xA/90, which has dropped to 1.31 KP/90 and 0.12 xA/90 in 2019, which is a huge drop. He’s not created a big chance in nine games now, having created 12 in the previous 21.
Clearly, there are deeper underlying issues with the creativity in the squad over this period which I’ve addressed elsewhere, discussing the role Trent Alexander-Arnold has played and the problem with the midfield structure, but the net result is that Liverpool have scored just 2.0 goals per game since New Year compared to 2.4 before then and are creating just 1.88 xG compared to 2.22.
Personally I believe that Mo’s underlying struggles and recent mixed bag of form are linked to our overall attacking issues – both in the sense that he has struggled because we’ve not been able to supply him, but also because when the team has been struggling in the past 18 months we’ve been able to rely on Mo pulling a rabbit out of a hat and that simply hasn’t happened to the same extent in 2019.
So in conclusion – Sadio is a phenomenal clutch player who has hit form at exactly the right time for his team and is playing a more prominent role in our attack, whilst also hitting a hot streak. In comparison, the finishing pixie has struck his strike partner, who is also getting less involved in the attack and, more worryingly, not having the same creative impact. And that lack of creativity is having an overall effect on the team’s attacking play, although it’s also being heavily influenced by the missing influence of Alexander-Arnold, the patchy form of Firmino and the problems with balance in the midfield.