Manager: Pep Guardiola
Bench: ter Stegen, Oblak, Ederson; Marcelo, Kolarov, Robertson; Hummels, Thiago Silva, Ramos; Naldo, Vertonghen, Varane; Carvajal, Walker, S. Roberto; Kanté, Fernandinho, Casemiro; Kroos, James, Modric; Iniesta, Eriksen, Firmino; Neymar, Sané, Mané; Kane, Cavani, Griezmann; Hazard, Bale, Aspas
Best Player: Lionel Messi
Best Team: Manchester City
Best Match: Manchester City – SSC Napoli 2-1
The selection is based on the two criteria quantity and quality of performance. I want to thank my guest authors: Daniel from Eiserne Ketten and Spielverlagerung & Rob Fielder, the author of the one truly complete history of the World Cup: The Complete History of the World Cup. As always, my blogposts have greatly profited from your contributions! All mistakes and wrong opinions, however, are mine and mine alone.
David de Gea
Choosing a goalkeeper was one of the more excruciating tasks this season. But for all the right reasons. 2017-18 saw quite a few keepers play at a very high level. And even some of the unstable ones, like Madrid’s Navas, had their moments in the limelight. For me, two goalkeepers stood out this season: Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen and Manchester United’s David de Gea. There is very little separating them in terms of quality of performance. They both produced season performances that rank among the best I have seen since I started compiling these teams. I’m very much looking forward to seeing them at the World Cup.
Before I comment on the ter Stegen-de Gea issue and on the Spaniard in particular, a few words on Oblak and Ederson, the other two goalkeepers in the squad: Oblak continues to be a well-rounded modern world class GK who impresses with his classy no-nonsense style of playing. As such he is a wonderful fit for the Atletico Madrid side he plays in. Ederson had a breakthrough season at Guardiola’s City. He is a bit more dubious on the line than all other selected GKs but at his best he set the new benchmark for how a goalkeeper can participate in his team’s overall possession game. Check out his performance against Napoli in City’s home game to judge him yourself.
Now for the big two, de Gea and ter Stegen. As I said, both performed supremely well and did more than enough in order to deserve a place in the starting eleven. Very, very little separates them in terms of overall output but their playing styles a markedly different. Ter Stegen, along with one or two other keepers, showcases the future of goalkeeping. Like hardly anybody else, he acts as an eleventh field player who bears significant burdens in his team’s buildup game. This is hardly a novel revelation in the case of ter Stegen, who belonged to the hyper-modern group of goalkeepers ever since he rose to prominence. What lead to him becoming an even better player is the fact that he became a better goalkeeper in the classical sense. During the last two seasons ter Stegen covered many cracks in Barcelona’s defensive concept by performing one game winning save after the other. For a particular fine moment, look at the save he performed during the final minutes of Barcelona’s 0-0 draw with Juventus. He had virtually nothing to do for the full 90 minutes and then manages to produce a moment of peak performance when the rest of the team was already halfway into the cabin. This surely belongs to the hardest tasks for any keeper. To summarize, ter Stegen has grown from a very interesting keeper into a complete shot stopper who belongs to the very best of his craft.
Yet, ter Stegen doesn’t make the first team. De Gea does. For a final time: it was a very close decision. Why did I choose de Gea? Because he produced a stunning series of fantastic saves that dwarfed even ter Stegen’s exploits on the line. The compilation of his saves really speaks for itself. Within the category of ‘saves’, de Gea is a very versatile player. He can produce the long-stretched jump into the goal’s upper corners as well as the point blank reaction save. A particular specialty of his is using his feet to make close range saves. There is little doubt in my mind that de Gea could be a world class handball keeper. Thank God (or celestial authority of your choice) he chose football instead. De Gea’s heroics are well-captured by the statistic that says United were expected to concede 14 goals more given the chances they allowed their opponents to have. De Gea thus played a massive role in securing a good 2nd place in the Premier League for a struggling United side. With the ball at his feet, de Gea is a decent yet unspectacular player. It was really his shot-stopping that won him the place in the first team. For this season at least, I made a conservative choice and placed the spider-like security net above the 11th field player (who is also very good at saving shots).
For years Jordi Alba fitted rather well into the stereotype of the attacking fullback: he was a more than decent auxiliary winger, but his defensive capabilities were fairly limited. In the latter regard he marked a setback compared to Eric Abidal, his direct successor at Barcelona. While the current version of Alba still doesn’t possess the sheer physical presence of primarily defensive fullbacks like Paolo Maldini, he has become an outstanding defender while arguably getting even better at attacking. Taken together these developments are enough to dethrone Marcelo, the more generally speaking best left-back in the world, for this season at least.
In my impression Jordi Alba is not an all-time great. Over the course of his career he may not even have reached the world class category all that often. He played on a high level, sure, but I never saw him as one of these irreplaceable players. But once in a while you see a mature player who is usually quite good but not outstanding suddenly improve dramatically. This has happened to Alba during the last ten months. It all fell into place for him. He still possesses his greatest weapon, his raw to speed and acceleration, but now he is able to use his Roadrunner-like qualities in a more holistic way. For example, his defensive anticipation has improved markedly. And improved anticipation plus the ability to reach a point on the field in no time at all equals a ton of clean ball-winning actions. This – and the performance of Samuel Umtiti, to whom we’ll come in a minute – ensured that Barcelona’s left side of defense was very tough to crack for long spells of the season. I’d never thought I’d say these words, but Jordi Alba was, in my impression, clearly the defensively best fullback in the world this season. Add to that his usual attacking prowess – he formed a particularly deadly partnership with Lionel Messi this season – and you’re having a fine player who is having a more than just fine season.
For a particular fine performance of his, watch Barcelona’s Copa del Rey game against Vigo.
How much does one really bad action in an important moment count against you? That is, sadly, one question we got to ask ourselves when looking back at Koulibaly’s season. His early red card against Fiorentina in one of the last matches of the season effectively eliminated Napoli as a serious title candidate in Serie A. And more, the action that led to his dismissal was not particularly unlucky or the like but simply a piece of really bad defending. Given that you already know that I did include Koulibaly in my Team of the Season you will surely guess that my personal answer to the above question is something along the lines of: an error at an important moment of time does speak against you but is usually not enough to discredit the many, many good things you did before.
What were these good things in the case of Koulibaly? The Senegalese was one of the main reasons why Napoli became a real challenger to Juventus’ seemingly eternal stronghold of the Serie A in the first place. He was their best defender defensively, but even more importantly he was their playmaker from the back. Koulibaly has by now firmly established himself as one of the finest playmaking defenders on the planet. He has mastered the art of the precise yet forceful 20 meter pass that reaches those little pockets of space between the opponent’s line that are of paramount importance for the modern game. Unlike Mats Hummels, who I still consider to be the chief heir to the libero throne, Koulibaly rarely plays the floating high balls that directly create chances (he registered only one assist all season) but he is a master at initiating dangerous moves by targeting his teammates in front on the opponent’s defense.
Koulibaly also is a very competent defender in a more classical sense. He is tall, powerful, and often wins duels in a very clean and controlled fashion. Some other defenders played a strong season but ultimately I think Koulibaly trumps them. Ramos, for example, plays at a generally high level (and often is the best classical defender around) but continues to make very major blunders just a bit too often. And Thiago Silva, to finish with another example, impressed me whenever I saw him but judging players from PSG just is very hard.
This Barcelona season, in my eyes, was less about the team as a whole performing particularly well, but more about some individuals having very good seasons and carrying a mediocre system. Leo Messi, of course, was their MVP, but some other players shone as well. Umtiti was one of them. While Piqué did have a decent season, it was the Frenchman who was the star at the centre of defense. Umtiti is a central defender in the mold of past players like Fabio Cannavaro. He is no physical giant but very powerful for his height. And the fact that he isn’t 1,90m or taller enables him to be much more mobile than, say, Mats Hummels or Jerome Boateng. He is equally adept at cleverly intercepting passes and at wrestling opponents from the ball. His low centre of gravity means that even very tall and strong strikers have a hard time against him in a physical duel. With the ball at his feet he is not as playmaking a defender as Hummels or Koulibaly, but he is very pressing resistant, possesses a fine technique and usually plays constructive passes. Keeping in mind the limitations that come with his height, he is pretty much the complete modern centre back.
Up until spring Umtiti’s season was close to flawless. His form took a turn for the worse during the final part of the season. (He was one of the weaker players during that fateful night in Rome.) That is not to say that he started playing crap, but he simply couldn’t keep up the level that made him the finest central defender on the planet from August to March.
In order to make it into a Team of the Season you must have performed really well during the season in question. Wait, that is not quite true. Actually, you must have performed better than your rivals for a spot in the team. As long as you outperform them, you will make it no matter how high or low your general level of performance was. One consequence of this system is that sometimes players who have performed extremely well do not make the team because of an embarrassment of riches in their respective position (see the GK position this year). And other times players who have performed well but not spectacularly so make the team for a lack of a truly outstanding performer.
What does all of this have to do with Joshua Kimmich? Do I want to tell you that he isn’t that good a player but makes the team because the other contenders were crap? No, I definitely don’t want to say that. Kimmich is a great player with an even greater potential who had a good season that was in more aspects than one remarkable. But, and there is a ‘but’, he isn’t yet on the level of players like Lahm, Alves or even Carvajal who featured as right-backs during the last couple of years. Or at least that is my impression of him. But since 2017-2018 was far from a season for the ages for right-backs, he makes the team anyway. I’d say that during most of the last ten seasons, I’d have happily placed someone like Kimmich on the bench. A very promising young player who is busy establishing himself in the world elite, but as of now is not yet the complete package despite possessing some qualities that are already truly outstanding.
Well, enough categorization for now. What speaks in Kimmich’s favour? First of all, one should mention what he does with the ball at his feet. As of the time of writing this portrait, Kimmich has registered 17 assists across all competitions this season. This is an outstanding output for an attacking midfielder, let alone a fullback. I’m not sure whether there have been historical right-backs who managed to rack up considerably more assists than that in a single season. Crucial to his assist tally is his ability to cross the ball. Kimmich certainly is the player among current elite right-backs who is the best crosser of the ball. In that regard at least, he already outshines Philipp Lahm, his great predecessor. But Kimmich is very adept at passing the ball, too. This is down both to his fine basic technique (half a Kroos, at least) and his football intelligence. Observing him play, one cannot escape the impression to watch a very serious footballer whose all-around quality means that he is here to stay. His greatest test this season – as for the whole Bayern Munich team – came at the semi-final stage of the Champions League. In both matches against Real Madrid Kimmich left the pitch as one of the best Bayern players. His two well-taken goals mark the pinnacle of his season.
Finally, a word on why I think he hasn’t quite reached his personal peak yet: I have seen some matches this season in which Kimmich seemed overwhelmed in regards to his defensive duties. One good example is the friendly between Germany and Brazil. At his worst, his defending looked naïve, lacking in robustness, and nervous. Now, that was his personal low and at many other occasions he defended well or even very well. The two matches against Real Madrid belong to this second category and indicate that he can be a fine defender in the classical sense as well. Still, as of now he’d be far from my first choice when it comes to picking a right-back who is mainly tasked with keeping a particularly dangerous winger in check. Also, people who have watched Bayern more than I did assured me that while Kimmich did indeed have a good season, the second half of his Bundesliga campaign couldn’t rival his performances in autumn and winter.
Still, with Carvajal suffering from injuries and Walker showing defensive weaknesses that surpass Kimmich’s, I don’t see any other right-back who should make the team. For having a good season (no more, no less), Kimmich makes the team – it may very well be his first of many appearances in a Team of the Season.
Frequent visitors of this blog already know that I rate Busquets very highly. He continues to be one, if not the most intelligent player I have ever seen on a football pitch. Both with and without the ball, he possesses an almost complete understanding of what happens around him. He couples that intelligence with a flawless basic technique and a tendency to frequently opt for creative solutions that transcend the no-nonsense rationality of other elite defensive or central midfielders like Toni Kroos. In his weaker years, he opts for these acts of genius a bit too often and with a worse feeling for what the situation calls for. If that is the case, he starts making bad mistakes and his overall performance diminishes. 2017-18 was not one of those weaker years. While it would be a bit much to say he didn’t make any blunders, his failure rate was extremely low given the creative work he does in the centre of the field.
Busquets continues to be a player who does not fit into every imaginable system but needs a certain level of accommodation. That is because of his physical shortcomings. He is tall but not particularly powerful and, most of all, he is very slow. By and large these shortcomings are well dealt with within both Barcelona and the Spanish national team. For Barcelona, for example, Busquets is often the player pressing rather high. Rakitic, or who else plays in central midfield, drops back to cover for him. That way the team utilizes Busquets’ strength as a pressing player and keeps him from being forced into running duels should the opponent be able to break the press. However, once in a while his lack of pace was evident. This was most prominent in the first match against Chelsea, when Busquets had a hard time defending against (the splendid) Willian.
By and large it can be said that Busquets played a little higher up the pitch than he used to do. There were matches in which it wasn’t clear whether he or Rakitic played as the deeper player. This had to do with Barcelona’s switch to a 4-4-2 system.
Busquets is one of those players whose general level of performance make him the default candidate for a place in Team of the Season. He needs to perform below his usual level or somebody else must play way above his usual level to keep him out of the starting eleven. During the last couple of years that happened multiple times. However, this season Busquets was back at his best. And at his best he is the best defensive midfielder around.
Here is a particularly fine moment from his season: It’s the first league Clasico of the season and Madrid have been so far the better team. Barcelona struggle to find ways to effectively break Madrid’s pressing. Cue Sergio Busquets. He invites the pressure close to his own box, evades it, keeps on evading it until the right moment comes, and finally sends Rakitic sprinting through midfield after he found him with a through ball. The first goal results from that action. Here is the video.
To watch full match performances that show Busquets at his best, look no further than the first Supercopa clasico (that Barcelona actually loses) and the CL group match away at Juventus.
David Silva by Daniel Roßbach
David Silva has won quite a few leagues, Spanish cups with Valencia, and a European Championship and World Cup (no European Cup, though). Given this list of Palmares he can probably cope with not having been in one of these teams before. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rectify. So here we are.
At Manchester City, Silva has been excellent for a long while. But since the arrival of Pep Guardiola, and in this season in particular, he was played in a role that fits him especially well. Guardiola’s players have sometimes said about their teams offensive that Pep gives them specific positional instructions to get to a point where a bit of individual brilliance can create chances or goals, at which point talented intuition is supposed to take over.
David Silva is one of the pieces (other than De Bruyne) linking those parts of City’s play. The reliable position play would usually consist in Silva occupying the left attacking half space, rolling more-or-less simple passes in the path of Sané or Sterling. Slightly more flashy, but still rather routine, was that Silva also regularly made runs into the box himself from that half space, which led to quite a few assists. Doing these relatively simple things well requires considerable skill, especially in executing turns on first touch well. Silva has that skill, but more than that. He also does genuinely surprising and effective things on the ball and few if any players can rival his vision and timing for through balls. All that combines to make him one of the outstanding attacking midfielders in this decade, and also this season.
Kevin de Bruyne by Daniel Roßbach
That making Kevin de Bruyne the player of the season in this Premier League campaign was not entirely unanimous was only due to Mohamed Salah having an incredibly productive season. As the dynamic centre piece of a Guardiola team built with unlimited resources, De Bruyne fully grew into himself and had as much of a break out season as anyone playing for the richest club in the world can have after having already been granted ‘best player in the league’ honours in the Bundesliga.
While some people claim (utterly erroneously, of course) that Cristiano Ronaldo is the most complete footballer in the world, what was maybe most astonishing about the Belgian in the last 12 months was the versatility he has shown. De Bruyne is reliable enough to play in the midfield tasked with carrying out probably the most demanding positional instructions. He is dynamic enough to get into scoring positions himself from there. He converts his chances and commands an almost oxymoronic effective long range shot. He is combative enough not to leave all the defensive work to Fernandiho. And he creates a huge volume of chances, but more on that later. The goal he scored against Chelsea, and whose genesis he helpfully explained on TV, encapsulates some of those qualities.
But it also shows how the system at Abu Dhabi Manchester City helps him to showcase them. If De Bruyne can receive a ball in between the lines, and can play a one-two to get it back again in motion toward goal and with no one close to tracking his run, this is indefensible in both senses that word could take. So, what about those assists? For starters, there is the sheer volume of them De Bruyne produced (16 in the league, 4 in the European Cup). But that tells not even half the story. For one, in City’s attack De Bruyne often also plays the second to last pass that unlocks the defense for one of the wide players making their diagonal runs to square it again. But more importantly, De Bruyne has created basically a new kind of setting up high probability chances. His assists and other important passes weren’t all beautiful through balls, or the crosses from his Wolfsburg days. What was new about De Bruyne’s passing was its range. He quite literally expanded the space of possibilities for decisive passes, playing bent balls through the whole attacking third for Sané to run onto, or half-way down the pitch dropping precisely right behind a defense, or frequently whipping in good, low, hard half-field crosses (gute Halbfeldflanken, another oxymoron). So to conclude, in some sense, De Bruyne does equal and emulate his idol LeBron James.
Here are two statements that I deem to be true:
- Lionel Messi is past his peak.
- Lionel Messi was the best player in world football in 2017-18.
These two statements are not mutually exclusive. If you want to name a player who made the most headlines, who was the most improved, or who created the most memorable moments as player of the season, Messi is not a suitable candidate. But if you simply look for the best player, I think Messi is once again the correct pick.
To begin, let me elaborate on the first statement. I think it is pretty much common knowledge that Messi’s plateau of excellence that made him almost universally recognized as one of the candidates for the title of best player ever began in 2008. Before that he was an outstanding talent who played strong, yet still not superhuman seasons. From 2008 to 2013 came a continuous and ascending phase of excellence. 2013-14 was plagued with niggling injuries. 2014-15 marked a second, more mature peak. 2015-2017 couldn’t quite match the utterly brilliant second treble season, but was still on par with, say, his first two years under Pep Guardiola. Now, Messi’s 2017-18 season marked, in my opinion, the continuation of the slow but notable (and entirely natural) decline we have seen during the last 2-3 years. Messi is getting older and he is getting a bit worse in the process. Some signs of decline are fully inevitable. He has lost a bit of acceleration and more than just a bit of top speed. During those rare moments when an opponent allows Barcelona to catch them on the break, Messi is no longer able to outrun the defenders. But the Argentine has also lost some of his once impeccable decision making quality. I’ve seen him try more hopeless dribbling attempts than in the years before combined. At his best he almost never tried anything that could be considered to be clearly irrational. These trends culminated in him having some matches that were just bad, and not just by his own standards. At his best, “Messi having a bad match” simply meant “the opponent kept Messi’s teammates from getting him involved”. This year he had some matches where he was involved but simply didn’t perform well (for example against Getafe back in September). And there were even more performances that would have been bad, if he didn’t eventually create that one (or two, three,…) moments of game-winning brilliance. Also, Messi’s work rate declined even more. Where he once was mostly passive (but clever) when the opponent had the ball (unless it really mattered), he now seemed at times strangely inactive even when his teammates were in possession. Some of this is down to him knowing which runs will prove fruitless, but I’m convinced that Messi could have played better by being a bit more industrious. To put it bluntly: he looked a bit tired. Which, again, is perfectly understandable but doesn’t change the fact that he used to perform at a higher level than he did this season. To say that Messi was never better than in 2017-18 would mean to forget what a complete force of nature the slightly younger Messi was.
So much for the first statement, now for the second statement: A post-peak Messi is still the best player in the world. His 2017-18 version is no longer as far ahead of the competition as he was during most of the last ten years, but he still manages to come out on top. I’d say that the current Messi is at around 70-75% of his absolute peak. And someone like Mo Salah is playing the season of his life. But I still contend that Messi produced a better aggregate score of quality and quantity of performance. This is, more than anything else, testament to his ridiculous general level of performance. Take his goal tally: Messi scored 45 goals this season. This is, once again, a statistic that would make any world class goal poacher proud. Looking at the shape of the Barcelona team against the ball, you’d think Messi played as a striker this season. But this is not the case. Once Barcelona won the ball, Messi dropped deeper into midfield, acting like a classic no.10. This means that he scored as many goals as the best true strikers while acting as a midfielder. True, quite a few of them came from typical centre-forward positions in the box, but very often he himself initiated from midfield the same moves that ended with him scoring in front of goal. (For a perfect example, have a look at this goal versus Bilbao.) Very few of his goals were handed to him. He once again acted as both creator and finisher. While Salah showed some similar characteristics, it remains true that no other player in world football can combine these two roles in such a devastating way.
This is but one element in a bigger truth: Messi’s current version, while not his best, is still Messi. His technique is still his technique. His creativity is still his creativity. His vision is still his vision. His shot is still his shot. His free kicks are still his free kicks. And as long as Messi is Messi he is at the very least a strong contender for being the best player around. Not because of past laurels but because he still possesses and uses the qualities that made him, in my eyes, the best ever. This diminished version is not as unreachable as earlier versions are but as long as he scores 30+ goals a season while also being the best creator around he is very hard to ignore. If Ronaldo had played for the full year like he played for the last three months; if Salah had scored even more or created more; if de Bryune could have kept up his Di Stéfano impression act for the full season, they could have taken his crown. But they didn’t, and Messi did what he always did. Just a bit worse, but still extremely well.
Can a player who was really poor for more than half of the year make it into the first XI of the Team of the Season? Good question. I’d say that this is next to impossible. He’d need to be extraordinarily good in the other part of the campaign. His quality of performance must be above the world class level that other players manage to produce for the whole season. That is very rare.
And yet, here we are again. Cristiano Ronaldo makes the team for the 8th time since I started compiling them. Not because there weren’t other contenders to take the spot in the front line next to Mo Salah. Strikers like Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane, and Edinson Cavani have showed us why they belong to the global elite. They played at a consistently high level for large parts of the season. Ronaldo didn’t. Until well into the new year, he was misfiring like seldom before in his career. And since the mature Ronaldo, as was pointed out on these pages multiple times already, is all about scoring goals, that means that his overall performance score was pretty dismal for the majority of the season. True, he scored a lot of goals in the Champion’s League group stage, but his inability to find the net in the league played a huge part in Real Madrid effectively falling out of the La Liga title race at some point in winter.
But as dismal as he was for the first half (and a bit) of the season, he was even more brilliant during the final months of the season. Just as during the last couple of seasons, he acted as a pure striker. He may still station himself on the left wing on occasion but his game is all about those actions in and around the penalty box. Doing so, he combines the raw poacher’s instinct of Gerd Müller with the physical ability of peak Marco van Basten. His prowess in the air, in particular, is almost unmatched in football history, which is an even more fantastic feat for a player who isn’t that tall. As soon as a ball – be it in the form of a cross, a pass, or some random action – enters the area, Ronaldo seems to be almost magnetically attracted to it. His short sprints to reach the ball are so forceful, so well-timed that hardly any defender is able to keep up. In this form, he continues to build his case for being maybe the best true centre forward the game has even seen. The peak of his fantastic spring was, of course, his epic overhead kick goal against Juventus. If he’d played like this for the full season, I’d have named him Player of the Season. Since he clearly didn’t, that title is out of reach, but he does make the first XI.
Looking at Ronaldo’s 2017-18 season is a good opportunity to briefly reflect on the respective value of performance in the domestic league and Champion’s League. While Ronaldo ultimately scored 26 league goals, his domestic season must be considered disappointing. Once he sprang to life, the title was all but lost for Real Madrid. And the fact that Ronaldo reached peak-form only so late in the season had a big part to play in that state of affairs. In the Champion’s League on the other hand, he performed extremely well for most of the season. (His semi-finals and final were more like the first half of the season, it should be noted.) I don’t do a team of the Champion’s League but if I did, Ronaldo would be in it and probably win Player of the Season. How should league and CL performance be weighted against another? My take is that in most contexts the league is, at least, not less important than the CL. Both competitions call for a different kind of excellence. The league is about the slow grind of getting results week after week. Most matches will be against weaker sides, but performing in almost all of them is a great challenge nevertheless. You don’t need to be at your absolute best all the time, but you must keep up a high level of performance almost without interruption. The CL, on the other hand, is about performing at your absolute best in a few selected matches against top class opponents. That is an altogether different challenge. Not a bigger one, not a lesser one, but simply different. Since both tasks are incredibly hard and a true test of one’s quality, I judge them to be of roughly equal importance. (An exception: teams and players that play in a sub-par domestic league without real competition should be evaluated more on their exploits in the CL.)
Mohamed Salah by Rob Fielder
Even seasoned Serie A observers would have been hard pushed to predict quite what an impact Mohamed Salah would have in his first season at Liverpool. The Egyptian winger had electrified at Roma, marking himself as among the most dangerous wingers in Italy, but his jump to the stratospheric level he has displayed in the last 10 months has still come as a surprise.
Ever since his outstanding displays for Basle against Chelsea and Tottenham, it has been apparent to fans of Premier League clubs that this was a player with huge potential. His speed, direct running and dribbling ability all marked him out as someone who could thrive in England. Yet his spell at Stamford Bridge was underwhelming.
Chelsea have developed a reputation over recent years as a club who have chewed up and spat out a host of prodigiously talented youngsters, from Kevin De Bruyne to Romelu Lukaku, without ever giving those players a fair chance at advancing to the next level. The likes of Andreas Christensen and Nemanja Matic had to prove themselves at Borussia Moenchengladbach and Benfica respectively, one on loan and the other being bought back, before getting a real crack at the first team. Such has been the managerial merry-go-round in West London that few Chelsea bosses have chosen to sew seeds for a future they’d be unlikely to ever enjoy.
An initial six-month loan for Salah at Fiorentina was a considerable success and while the Viola were keen to activate a clause to extend for another year, the Egyptian was eyeing pastures new. At Roma Salah settle well, demonstrating his Fiorentina form over a longer period and he was an integral part of Luciano Spalletti’s side, popping up with goals and assists before the Premier League came calling again. The £37m fee reflected Roma’s uncertain finances, Liverpool’s already potent forward line but also the fact that Salah was not yet operating at a “world class” level and uncertainty about whether he could really hack it in England. For a side with a porous backline, short of a truly outstanding central midfielder and with question marks over their goalkeeping solution, there were significant doubts as to whether Salah was really what Liverpool needed.
His early weeks confirmed much of what those who had seen Salah at Roma already knew. His movement was superb and he continuously found himself in menacing positions. What let him down was his composure in the area and a tendency to fluff a series of big chances. Yet where Salah has excelled, in contrast to Alvaro Morata who started the season brilliantly and then faded away, has been in his ability to put those misses out of his mind. There is little robotic in the way that Salah approaches the game but his single-mindedness has to rank among his greatest attributes. In terms of what has made Salah so special this season it is clear where to start. While his speed and incisive running have made him the perfect foil for Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, it’s been his goalscoring that has grabbed the headlines. Even the best players in Premier League history have generally required a period of adaptation but the instant way that he has acclimatised to life on Merseyside have been astonishing.
It wouldn’t have been far-fetched at the season’s start to think someone might break the Premier League’s record for the most goals in a 38-game season, particularly given Harry Kane’s obsessive thirst for continuous improvement. Yet Salah hardly looked like the man to do it. Instead he has proved relentless in his ability to find the back of the net and his goals have come in a steady flow, rather than a glut against the Premier League’s cannon fodder. In many ways his prodigious contribution has papered over the remaining cracks in Liverpool’s first XI. The presence of Salah has spread confidence throughout the team and, along with the arrival of Virgil van Dijk in January, made the Reds into one of the most feared sides in Europe. The departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona and the long-standing absence of Adam Lallana, one of their most influential figures last campaign, have largely been forgotten, while the likes of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have blossomed into full-backs of real promise. While the Egyptian hasn’t done all this on his own, it’s hard to overstate the significance that he has had.
Some, myself included, doubted whether he merited the PFA and FWA awards for player of the season ahead of the sublime talents of Kevin De Bruyne. The imperious charge of Manchester City, the way in which they marched to 100 points, effectively winning the title in the autumn on the back of the Belgian’s incredible form, all meant that Salah had stiff competition. But when looking at Liverpool’s season it’s hard not to think of where they might been without him. The manner in which Liverpool blew away opponents, in particular the first halves against City and Roma, was driven by the superb understanding formed by their attacking triumvirate. The speed, the fearlessness and the direct nature of their play left opponents bewildered and nobody typified that more than Salah.
The Champions League final only served to confirm many of these thoughts. The opening spell saw Liverpool at their vibrant best and they had managed to take the upper hand against a Real Madrid team packed full of experience. Salah’ departure through injury midway through the first half was a seismic blow to the Red’s chances and it was almost possible to see their confidence ebb away as he left the field. Despite the best efforts of Mane in particular it was apparent that the balance of power had shifted decisively in favour of Los Blancos and it was no surprise to see them gradually tighten their grip on the contest, helped in no small part by the introduction of Gareth Bale and two catastrophic blunders from Loris Karius. Had Salah stayed on, it’s easy to think that the result might have been different, such has been his talismanic influence on the team. Instead Liverpool supporters are left to think of what might have been and for the rest of the footballing world to hope that the Egyptian’s injury does not rule him out of the World Cup. That would surely be a cruelty too far.