Football Features

Mohamed Salah’s penalty-area possession: A sign of the Liverpool star’s fear factor?

By Muhammad Butt

Mohamed Salah's penalty-area possession: A sign of Liverpool fear factor

Published: 18:40, 14 September 2020

Mohamed Salah is one of the Premier League’s very best players, one that strikes fear into the heart of opponents.

The Egyptian forward joined Liverpool in 2017/18 and after an inconsistent first few months, has been a relentless and terrifying attacking force that has dominated the English top flight like few others have done, winning one title and two Golden Boot awards in the process.

Salah sparked the 2020/21 season into life on Saturday with an opening day hat-trick against Leeds United, featuring two nerveless penalties and one scorching strike that gave the Reds a dramatic victory after what had been a back-and-forth game.

But as much as the hat-trick was incredible, what stood out the most was not the three goals but the 21 touches he took in the opposition penalty box. Yes, that’s right, twenty one. For reference, the next highest amount of touches in the opposition penalty box across the Premier League’s opening weekend was Sadio Mané’s tally of nine. For Salah to get 21 is just absurd, that’s more touches than Patrick Bamford had in total (17)!

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Touches in the penalty box can seem like a strange stat to consider, but they help to show just how much of a presence a forward has in the most dangerous area possible. You’d expect big strikers to have the most touches, because they’re always being supplied with crosses and passes from team-mates. But if you look closer, you’ll see a different pattern emerge – and Salah’s dominance explained.

In 2019/20 the five most prolific touchers of the ball in the opposition penalty box were Liverpool’s front three (Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino) as well as Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha. What do all of those men have in common? Dribbling and close control.

Salah and Sterling were the only two to top 300 touches in the opponent’s penalty box, so you can see the advantage dribblers have here (you’d have to imagine that if Zaha played for a better team than Crystal Palace he’d get there too). Obviously when you dribble, you take multiple touches, so your total balloons.

The thing is; being able to dribble in the penalty box, where defensive pressure is at an intense level, is quite the feat. It’s such a useful thing for attackers to be able to do as it draws the attention of defenders, who then react one of two ways and each will provide Salah with an opportunity.

If defenders closes on Salah, then the Egyptian can either pass around them to team-mates now in space, or use his dribbling skill to beat his man or win a penalty. Alternatively, if defenders stand back off Salah then he is free to have a shot or pick a pass to a team-mate in space. Opponents are scared of Salah reaching the penalty box because once he does, he has so many options that whatever they do, there’s the potential for damage at the hands (feet?) of one of the Premier League’s finest players.

Since Salah’s debut in 2017 he has scored more goals than anyone else in the same timeframe (76). This is well known. However, during that same time Salah also leads the Premier League in touches (947) and shots from inside the penalty box (326). He is 81 shots ahead of second-placed Harry Kane and 84 touches ahead of third-placed Raheem Sterling. So it’s not just that he’s top, but he’s top by a considerable distance.

This is why criticism of Salah’s performances where he doesn’t score or assist is always laughable. The Egyptian’s game is so dominant and his reputation is so great that his very presence shapes the way defenders play against Liverpool. Teams are terrified of Salah, the Pharaoh of penalty box pressure, and this enables Liverpool’s legendary dominance.