Mohamed Salah is irreplaceable. Let's use data to replace him, anyway.
Can it be done? Let's find out!
I don’t want to shock anyone here, but Liverpool and Egypt attacker Mohamed Salah is quite good at the football.
We’re halfway through his seventh season at Anfield and he’s still never had a campaign where you’d say his performances fell below the standard of “one of the Premier League’s best attackers”. Since returning to England’s top flight in 2017, he’s scored 127 non-penalty goals, more than any other player. Harry Kane is in second place with 111, while no one else has more than 100. At the same time, he’s contributed 66 assists and an all-round game that’s transformed this Liverpool side.
He’s 31 years old right now and, at a time when he might have lost a touch of pace, he’s somehow adding even more to his game. He’s making more progressive passes per 90 than in any previous season without sacrificing his expected goals and assists at all. He’s been absolutely electric. His left-footedness brings so much balance to a Liverpool team otherwise dominated by righties. Perhaps most importantly, he’s world-class at the greatest ability of all: availability. Yes, he’s injured right now, infuriatingly forcing me to rewrite this intro. But that’s his first injury since November 2019 (not including testing positive for Covid). The man is pretty much always fit.
So he’s always excellent, really important tactically, and never gets injured. Yeah, those players definitely grow on trees. But that shouldn’t deter us, should it? Let’s start by seeing if we can find any straight statistical matches for what Salah can do.
The data used here is provided by FBRef, especially relevant as today’s newsletter is sponsored by their new product, Stathead FBref! If you read my stuff, you already know I use FBRef’s data liberally in the newsletter because it’s the easiest way to find accurate advanced stats on football (or soccer, if you must). Now Stathead takes that data and gives you the power to search for what you need to know. Idly wondering which team in the big five leagues last season had the worst finishing in a single match? Stathead has you covered (it was Freiburg at home to Bochum). You can really dig into FBRef’s database now with Stathead at your fingertips, as we’ll see in this article.
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Let’s start by looking at Salah’s worst output. His lowest non-penalty xG and xG assisted over a season was 0.43 and 0.18 in 2020/21. So we’re going to search for a player in the top five leagues in the past three seasons with at least those stats, having played at least ten 90s worth of minutes. And we’re only going to look at players born in 1997 or later, meaning the oldest among the sample would turn 27 this year. Let’s see who Stathead spits out.
The simple search produced the following 23 names:
Erling Haaland (three times)
Kylian Mbappé (three times)
Christopher Nkunku (twice)
Darwin Núñez (twice)
Darwin Núñez already plays for Liverpool, so he’s not much use here. Then there are the four players already at Premier League Rich Seven clubs: Erling Haaland, Nicolas Jackson, Gabriel Jesus and Christopher Nkunku. They’re not going to Liverpool. Nor is Kylian Mbappé, whatever spurious internet rumours may tell you, or Rodrygo. We’re down to 16 names.
As you might have noticed, quite a few players here are out-and-out strikers, who might be great, but they’re not really what we’re looking for (Victor Boniface, Bamba Dieng, Artem Dovbyk, Mohamed Bayo, Lautaro Martínez, Terem Moffi and Marcus Thuram). Then we get to maybe the biggest problem: of the nine names left, eight are right-footed (Matheus Cunha, Breel Embolo, João Félix, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Ademola Lookman, Donyell Malen, Loïs Openda and Ferrán Torres). Salah’s left-footedness is very important to Liverpool’s attack.
Which means we have just one name left. For a direct statistical replacement, the player Liverpool should sign if they sell Salah is….
I can sense the Liverpool fans booing me from across the internet.
In all fairness, Mbeumo has been good for Brentford. He’s showing good signs of progress at age 24, fits the tactical role as a left-footed right winger bursting into space, and has two years left on his contract this summer. He’s had a few years of xG underperformance that, if you can be confident will not keep plaguing him, probably reduce his transfer fee a bit. Liverpool have done very well in the past signing players from Premier League clubs outside the elite, and Mbeumo would fit the model as another one of these. If you want a poor man’s Salah, he might be ideal.
But is he the real thing? Of course not. Guys, you’re still trying to replace Salah. I told you we can’t do it, and we can’t do it. Now, what we might be able to do is recreate him. Recreate him in the aggregate.
I think we can break what Salah does for Liverpool into three core areas: goals, creativity, and left-footedness. Goals are obviously pretty straightforward to measure He’s scored 10 non-penalty strikes in the league this season from 9.4 xG. Over his entire time at Anfield, he averages out 0.57 non-penalty goals per 90, and he’s on the pitch for about 34 league 90s, so we’re looking at 19 goals per season (yes, I know he takes the penalties as well, but someone else can do that). That’s the number of goals we have to find.
Let’s assume the player in question will be able to play about 80% of the available minutes. That means they need to be producing a little over 0.6 non-penalty goals per 90. We’ll use xG because it’s more predictive. We’re also not looking for out-and-out strikers. Again, they must have been born in 1997 or later, and we’re subtracting those Liverpool have no realistic chance of signing. Here’s who FBRef spits out either this season:
Loïs Openda (twice)
Marcus Thuram (twice)
I’ve been a little more generous with the definition of “striker” this time. Someone like Thuram tends to play as a nine now, but he’s been effective out wide in the past. Friend of the newsletter and very smart football knower Mohamed Mohamed has been banging the Thuram drum for over six years now, so that would be exciting. Openda has really looked the part for RB Leipzig as he did for Lens and would certainly be interesting, though likely not cheap. I don’t think the other players have shown the kind of consistency over several years that we’re looking for.
If Liverpool signed a right-footer to replace Salah, I think they’re committing to starting Harvey Elliott as the right-sided central midfielder every week. His inclination to drift out wide as a left-footed playmaker would provide the balance that Salah automatically offers with his left foot. I like Elliott a lot, but I understand why you might not want to do that. And in terms of creativity, Liverpool are probably maxed out in terms of what they’re getting elsewhere from Dominik Szoboszlai, Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold. I think it would be very difficult to carry a forward who didn’t offer as much creativity as Salah without making the team worse.
As we’ve established, Salah is doing more creative work than ever this season. I think that’s been a big part of Liverpool’s resurgence this season, and important in transitioning from a selfless false nine like Roberto Firmino to Núñez, a much more individualistic player, up top. He’s providing 5.13 progressive passes per 90 and 3.58 progressive carries. Let’s loosen it up a touch and go for at least five passes and three carries. This time, let’s only look for attackers who hit those stats, within the same age range as before, and we’ll limit ourselves to left footers. Let’s see what comes up.
Charles De Ketelaere
Rodri (not that one, the one at Betis)
It’s good news that Liverpool already have a player turning up in both searches. Between them, Elliott and Núñez could fill the things Salah does. It’s just a problem that he already does them in addition to what those players bring. Another interesting player was Cole Palmer. I removed him from the list because he has a contract running until the heat death of the universe, he’s surely near the bottom of the list of players Chelsea might sell, and Liverpool are probably one of the clubs Todd Boehly et al would least like to sell to. But if anything were to change after such a disappointing season for the club, I’d seriously think about making an offer.
Matías Soulé is certainly getting a lot of excitement right now. The aforementioned Mohamed Mohamed was pretty sold on his talent, though voiced some concerns about whether he’d suit English football. Soulé isn’t a hugely explosive player and would offer much more of a creative role to support others running into space. But his body isn’t finished maturing at age 20, and to do what he’s already doing in Serie A at midtable Frosinone is really impressive, so he might be worth at least looking into. He is owned by Juventus, but who knows what their finances might mean in terms of keeping young players?
Michael Olise is a boring but logical choice. He can definitely handle the Premier League and has shown decent, if not elite, playmaking skills on an uninspiring Crystal Palace team. We’re seeing him take on more attacking responsibility this season, with more shots, more xG and more goals, without a decline in his creativity. It’s a small sample size but, at 22 years old, he might be improving his game in important ways. Palace showed last summer that they didn’t need to sell when Chelsea started sniffing around, but will it make more sense this summer, if a bid comes in early? The club’s largest shareholder, John Textor, is exploring selling his 45% stake, and who knows how that uncertainty will affect transfer dealings?
If a player like Olise or Soulé were to come in on the right, Liverpool would need to get more goals from elsewhere. Luis Díaz hasn’t been sparkling over the past twelve months, so simultaneously upgrading at left wing could ease the burden. And should Liverpool be getting more goals from midfield? Dominik Szoboszlai has scored just twice in the league this season, with no other midfielder getting more than that. Szoboszlai is taking fewer shots from really dangerous locations at Anfield than he did at RB Leipzig, presumably because he’s playing a slightly deeper role. There’s an option to push him a bit further forward and make this team more of a 4-2-3-1 instead of a 4-3-3, which could again help spread the burden of losing Salah.
This is all really hypothetical. We don’t even know if Salah will be leaving or not, though I think it’s certainly something Liverpool should be thinking about. We do know that there isn’t another Salah sitting around for the Reds to scoop up, and some more creative thinking is required to replace him. Whatever happens this summer, Liverpool will have to move on from him sooner or later. The important thing is to understand how to replace what the team does with him in the side, rather than simply replacing him. You can’t replace a player like Salah but, yes, you can recreate him in the aggregate.
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