Thursday 24 May 2018

A simple but sensational talent: Why Mohamed Salah beat Kevin de Bruyne to PFA Player of the Year award

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah

Miguel Delaney

When it comes to trying to put a perspective on why Mohamed Salah is player of the year, to explain his excellence, there isn’t actually that much to it. The Egyptian has simply been sensational at the most fundamental and valuable part of the game: putting the ball in the net.

There’ such a purity to what he’s doing that any competitors - including Kevin De Bruyne - have just paled next to him.

It really is that simple, but the story of how he got to this point - and to doing it all in this style - has a few more elements to it, and may be instructive.

Salah’s season is impressive not just because it is his first proper campaign in English football and with a new club, but because it is his first at this kind of ludicrously good level.

His development this season has matched the pace that fires his game. It is remarkable to think that it was as recent as October that his wayward finishing was still being criticised, and as recently as January when this run of form was still being thought of as a freak of his positioning out wide.

There were times up to then when it seemed like he still didn’t really know how to strike a ball properly, that he seemed like one of those frustrating wingers that had everything except that conviction, that was all movement but thereby also a lot of frustration.

No more, because there’s no stopping him. The Premier League has over the last season watched a player surge into his prime, perhaps more drastically and dramatically than ever before.

Those around Liverpool say they can pin-point the moment when something started to change his game. That was the 3-2 win away to Leicester City in September, when Salah scored the most arrogant of far-post headers.

It wasn’t the type of finish usually associated with him, but was very soon the kind of finish he was pulling off with ease. With almost a casual assurance.

It was genuinely as if something just clicked for him then, as if he had that final confidence required to really bring his talents together and maximise them.

That again sounds simplistic, but the details of the stark difference dictate as much.

Consider this. Since that Leicester goal, there has only been one spell when Salah went more than one league game without scoring, and that was back in October when he was still finding his groove.

Since then, he has really been on Lionel Messi form. That is no exaggeration. The apex of this - so far - was maybe that supreme Champions League goal away to Manchester City. There wasn’t even much pace to that - beyond the relentless speed of the game - just the poise and presence of mind to so brilliantly and calmly lift the ball into the net when there was sound and fury all around him.

It’s also gone full circle in terms of his finishing. Where he once fluffed multiple chances from so much space, he can now seemingly score when there appears no room to take a shot. One strike against Tottenham Hotspur was the perfect example of this.

The extra focus to Salah’s play has also been matched by an extra focus to his positioning, as Klopp gradually realised he could actually just be used up front.

It’s similarly difficult to divorce the German’s famously motivational management, and that effect, just as it’s difficult to divorce Salah’s goals from the wider game.

This is what really elevates him.

It is not just the potential threat of him scoring.

It is that the threat of his movement so occupies the attention of defences, so consumes them and distorts any opposition plan. This then creates more space for the rest of the Liverpool attack to wreak havoc, and that in turns further frees Salah.

It is a glorious cascade of attacking action, normally finished by the smoothest of movements. Except the season isn’t quite finished yet.

Salah’s goals have already transformed Liverpool from a team who scrabbled around for top four to one who have so assertively taken a spot, and into Champions League semi-finalists.

There’s likely much more to come, and not just from this season - one he has already taken command of.

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport