The Class of 2018/19 is a short series in which, ahead of the new season starting on Friday, The Anfield Talk contributors review the 2018/19 season’s of Liverpool’s squad.
Here is @sammillnelfc, reviewing Mohamed Salah’s season…
It’s a warm night in Kyiv and Liverpool have just lost the final of The Champion’s League. A combination of bad luck and weak squad depth allowed Madrid to win the game 3-1 and take ol’ big ears home for the fourth time in just five years. Earlier on, Salah left the pitch in tears following a clash with Sergio Ramos which forced him off through injury. Not only had the Egyptian exited the pitch in devastation but in that moment there was a feeling of dejection. Liverpool had started brightly with Salah who, as usual, acted as the linchpin of their attacking play. His forced retirement from the match forced Liverpool into changing their game plan and from then on there was only going to be one winner despite Sadio Mané’s second-half equalizer. For Salah, not only had his club season ended in disappointment, but he was now facing a race against time to be ready for his first World Cup.
Fast forward a year and the difference in emotions is immense. Liverpool have just lifted number 6 with Salah playing a key part throughout the competition. Converting his penalty in the second minute of the European Cup final helped put to bed the ghosts of the previous year and perhaps helped him to relax from then on during the match. On the final whistle, the celebrations were jubilant and it was evident how much it meant to him. The win also came with a sense of relief. It had felt like a two-year journey to get to this point and Salah had been integral to the success at the end.
The World Cup ended early for Mo. Egypt were knocked out at the first hurdle as a result of failing to pick up a single point in the group stages. Although the tournament was a disaster for Egypt, Salah was the shining light, managing to score two in two, despite not being fully fit. For Liverpool, the early exit was a blessing in disguise as it meant Mo could return to pre-season early and be fully prepared for the long season ahead.
Over the course of the 2018/19 season, Mohamed Salah played 52 times, scoring 27 goals along the way. Undeterred by doubters and rivals throwing around the phrase ‘one-season wonder’, his formed picked up towards the end of October. A mesmerising hat-trick away at Bournemouth was the highlight of a successful December which saw him also score the crucial goal in beating Napoli to progress to the Round of 16 in Europe. The hat-trick also marked the start of a good run of form in the league. Nine goals in eight games followed as Mo showed his flexibility. At times Klopp used him as the main striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation as well as in his usual position on the right-wing of a 4-3-3.
After the winter period, Klopp reverted back to his more traditional 4-3-3. One of Salah’s most notable performances of the season came away at the Allianz Arena, home of Bayern Munich. A 0-0 draw in the first leg at Anfield, subsequently meant that a score-draw would be enough to see Liverpool into the quarter-finals, however, not content on scraping through via the away goals rule, Liverpool put on a show of dominance that night.
Salah’s link-up play with Firmino and Wijnaldum down the right was magnificent. Often under pressure, with his back to goal, he’d lay the ball off first-time, creating space for Wijnaldum to roam down the middle of the pitch on the counter-attack. He’d then turn his marker using his speed and strength creating an option on the right, dragging Alaba and Thiago out of position simultaneously. His evening culminated in the delivery of a sumptuous ball using the outside of his left boot, which landed plumb on Sadio Mané’s head, giving him the perfect opportunity to head home for 3-1.
Another aspect of criticism that Salah has received in the past, was his supposed inability to perform under pressure. Even though his penalty technique is questionable, he auspiciously converted all five of his spot-kicks during the 2018/19 season, including his famous early penalty in the Champion’s League final. When the Reds were under the cosh and in need of something special, Salah again proved he could step up.
On a tense Friday night, down at St. Mary’s, Liverpool’s title hopes seemingly hung by a thread as they were stuttering to a disastrous 1-1 draw, but on 80 minutes, that all changed. Following a Southampton attack, the ball ricocheted out to Henderson who proceeded to direct his header in the direction of Mo. On the edge of the centre-circle, in his own half, Salah ran with the ball. Chased by two Southampton players, he continued to make progress into opposition territory until he reached the edge of their penalty area. With Firmino supporting him to his left, everyone with Red bias was screaming ‘pass!’ but instead Salah had the confidence and presence of mind to pick out the bottom right corner to send the away end into raptures of celebration.
In just the next league match, Salah again sent Liverpool supporters everywhere into delirium. With Mané’s back-post header having just opened the scoring for Liverpool, Salah took down a perfectly weighted pass from Van Dijk, cut inside and arrowed the ball into the top left corner from all of 35 yards. It was a goal for the ages.
Unfortunately, we all know that despite earning a record 97 points, Liverpool didn’t quite win the league last season, however, the players produced a performance worthy of the league title in all but two of top-flight seasons since 1888. Although Salah didn’t quite reach the heights of his debut season at the club in which he scored an astounding 44 goals, he still finished the season as joint golden boot winner with fellow Africans, his teammate, Sadio Mané, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal.
Alongside winning the biggest prize in club football, Salah also cemented his position as a global icon. Appearing on the front cover of ‘Time Magazine’ ensured that his position as an influencer continued to be used for good, advocating women’s rights and helping to fight islamophobia in the western world.
Next season I think we will see an again improved Salah. His season may start slowly due to being involved in the African Cup of Nations, however, once up and running, I believe he’ll feel less pressure having won a piece of silverware. One would fully expect him to score upward of 20 goals yet again and be a key part of the manager’s plans in whichever formation Jürgen chooses to adopt.