Liverpool's collective core means they remain a force despite Mohamed Salah's dip in form
The Egyptian has so far failed to hit the heights of last season but his side have still made a strong start to the campaign
The script was partly familiar for Liverpool. For the second time in four days, a left-footed forward mustered a virtuoso strike.
Confronted with that scenario a few weeks ago, the logical conclusion would have been that the protagonist was Mohamed Salah.
Instead it was Daniel Sturridge, the scorer of twin wonder goals against Chelsea this week, and if the Englishman’s renaissance has been one of the most heart-warming stories at Anfield this season, both he and Salah are reminders that fortunes fluctuate.
Salah was substituted with Liverpool trailing to Chelsea and drawing with Paris Saint-Germain; on neither occasion did his immediate replacement score, but his removal with Liverpool requiring a goal was nevertheless significant.
It would have been inconceivable last season. “It was not the best game of Mo’s career, that’s 100 per cent,” said Jurgen Klopp post-match of the decision to withdraw the Egyptian early from proceedings.
Few have come this season. That it has not mattered as much as it might have done is a sign of a greater strength in depth, symbolised by the scorer Sturridge.
The abiding image of Salah, in contrast, was of him in distant pursuit when Eden Hazard sped away to open the scoring for Chelsea.
The Egyptian was not at fault – Trent Alexander-Arnold, sucked out of position, was partly culpable and the winger was trying to fill the space the right-back left – but it summed up their respective seasons.
Salah is the reigning Footballer of the Year but Hazard is the early favourite to supplant him. He is the form man.
He has the momentum, which seemed to propel Salah to improbable feats last year.
The silliest overreaction, which a select few have been guilty of, is to proclaim him a “one-season wonder”. A more legitimate discussion point is to what extent it represented a personal outlier and to wonder where his new norm is.
Salah had never previously reached 20 goals in a season and he scored 44 times in his first year with Liverpool. It is hard to make complete comparisons on his previous seasons as at Roma he was in a team configured to suit him more than a Roma side that was built around Edin Dzeko.
In one respect, little has changed now. Salah remains both persistent and elusive. “He constantly gets into situations and that makes him a world-class player,” Klopp noted.
The Egyptian had the second most shots in the division last season. He has the third most now. The difference is in his conversion rate, which has declined from 22.2 per cent to 10.3 per cent.
Yet Antonio Rudiger’s brilliant goal-line clearance to deny Salah a first-half goal illustrated how narrow the margins can be.
While Salah has not recaptured his finest form since being injured by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final, it scarcely helps that Liverpool’s forward line are yet to recreate the chemistry that made them so formidable.
Roberto Firmino delivered the late winner against Paris Saint-Germain but he has not been as ubiquitous. Sadio Mane has been the best of the trio but if Chelsea’s challenge is being powered by Hazard, Liverpool’s is more of a collective effort.
Klopp argued before Saturday’s game: “We didn’t rely on Mo’s goals last season.” That is a moot point but, with seven league scorers already, they look less dependent on any one individual now.
The significance of Sturridge’s Saturday strike lay partly in the timing and the opposition, but also in the style. A wonderful long-range shot, a goal out of nothing: it was something the departed Philippe Coutinho might have done.
Salah compensated for the Brazilian’s sale last season. Now others are scoring some of the goals he may have done.
But while Maurizio Sarri has set Hazard a Salah-esque target of 40, it remains a question of what Liverpool can expect from their 44-goal man in his second season.
Updated: September 30, 2018 03:28 PM