Football is full of wondrous variety with many teams developing their own signature styles, but sometimes commonalities occur.
These “duplicate” teams aren’t usually formed intentionally, teams don’t set to clone a style wholesale, more likely that they have players that are similar and so borrow ideas from each other. Or sometimes they have players in similar roles but use them to play a wholly different kind of football.
Case in point: Liverpool and Spurs. The two sides locked in a frantic battle atop the Premier League table, scheduled to face-off on Wednesday night in a clash that could hand one of the sides a decisive advantage as we head into the festive fixture feast that so dominates the English football calendar on an annual basis.
At the head of each of these sides is a forward that, while not a traditional no. 9, is a potent goalscoring force. Mohamed Salah has been the most lethal scorer in the Premier League ever since he signed for the club (and has as many Premier League goals as Liverpool legend Fernando Torres), but this season he has been matched all the way by Heung-min Son as the South Korean has exploded under José Mourinho.
How do the two forwards compare and where do their statistical similarities lie?
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For starters, both men have featured in about the same amount of matches. Salah has played 11 matches with 957 minutes, while Son has 999 minutes spread over 12 games. Both men ostensibly start in the half-space and do the majority of their work inside the opponents’ half. Able to move inside or out, their tendency is to cut inside both with and without the ball in order to find space to create danger from.
While Son tends to cover more horizontal ground owing to Spurs’ lack of a strong presence on the opposite flank (Steven Bergwijn is no Sadio Mané) as well as the nature of his double-act with Harry Kane at the head of the side is why. In essence, however, they are both world-class wing-forwards designed to get on the end of attacks and finish them with aplomb. To sum up how they are always on the last line, both men have been caught offside five times each.
So, if these two are goalscorers how do they stack up? Well they each have 10 Premier League goals; only Dominic Calvert-Lewin has more (11). Five of Salah’s have come from the spot, however, which does give a slight edge to Son in terms of outfield production.
Salah has scored eight big chances, missing two – while Son has scored seven while missing three. The players are remarkably similar when it comes to delivering goals from great positions; they rarely miss sitters.
The one meaningful difference between the two men, beyond their dominant foot (Salah is a true leftie while Son is two-footed) is that Salah takes a lot more shots than Son does, nearly double, in fact. 41 for Salah and just 22 for Son, although 12 of Salah’s shots were blocked while just five of Son’s have been stuffed, so excluding blocks it’s a more respectable 29 to 17.
This of course means that Son has a superior conversion-rate of 58.82% to Salah’s 34.48%, although Son’s conversion right now seems to be unsustainablly high. Converting 60% of your shots is nuts, as is scoring 10 goals from an expected goals (xG) total of 3.53. Son’s incredible output is not likely to last.
However before Liverpool fans get too smug, will the Reds continue to rack up penalties at such a ridiculous rate? Yes Salah’s overall xG is a very impressive 7.22, so he’s only slightly overperforming it (which is normal for elite forwards) but literally half his goals have come from the spot. Only Leicester have been awarded more than the Reds’ five penalties, and when that number cools down so will Salah’s scoring.
And so we come to the finest point of scoring comparison between both men: Non-penalty expected goals (NPxG), the goals a player is expected to score without penalties. And here Salah has an NPxG figure of 3.28, while Son’s is a remarkably similar 3.53.
That is to say that barring freak occurrences (Salah’s penalty bonanza and Son’s unsustainable accuracy) the two forwards are basically getting a similar quality of chances and should score about the same amount of goals. So even a difference eventually leads to a similarity.
The two are even similar when it comes to helping their team-mates: Salah has created 23 chances so far this season while Son has 21; although given the Korean is playing with Harry Kane he’s managed to clock up 4 assists to the Egyptian’s 2.
Salah has played more passes (398 to 312) but this and all the other passing stats skewing in favour of the Egyptian is down to Liverpool dominating the ball more, while Spurs are happy to play Mourinho-ball and forego possession in order to unleash Son in space.
Use Squawka’s Comparison Matrix tool below to compare Salah and Son’s stats.
Son excels at finding that space, at moving off-the-ball, and that impacts the volume of his dribbling compared to Salah. The Egyptian has attempted more than double the take-ons that the South Korean has (42 to 18) and completed exactly double (18 to 9). However he’s not necessarily a better dribbler as they both win about half their take-ons (42.85% for Salah).
In terms of defending, Son has a slight edge here. Both men have seven tackles so far this season but Son has recovered possession 42 times compared to Salah’s 28. It’s not a massive difference, and both men play with intensity and are happy to press high up the field as well as clog the passing lanes to prevent easy out-balls from opponents.
Son’s development this season has seen him shine in similar areas to Salah and we now have two wondrous wing-forwards tearing up the Premier League. Can it last? Let’s hope so, because it’s spectacular to watch!