Salah: #FPL Stick or Twist?
Guest Post from @JamesMartin013
Mohamed Salah’s mercurial form last season saw him finish not only as the Golden Boot winner and record goal-scorer in a 38-game season, but as the highest scoring player ever in a Fantasy Premier League season. In response, the powers that be slapped a 13-million-pound price tag on his head for the 2018/19 campaign. Many managers – over 2.4 million of them, in fact – did not think twice about splashing 13% of their budget on the Egyptian. After all, if he even came close to replicating last season’s numbers he would repay the investment in kind. So far, however, he does not look like the Salah of 2017/18. A number of squandered chances has left many people’s patience running thin, but the big question is this: stick or twist?
Let’s start by looking at the raw numbers. After seven games last season, Salah had netted four times in the league and assisted two further goals. Arsenal and Manchester City were the stand-out games in a relatively kind run; this allows for a near-direct comparison to this campaign, where Liverpool’s fixture list has thrown up tough clashes against Chelsea and Spurs in amongst some more routine matches. In these seven games, Salah has notched three goals and two assists: the numbers are nearly identical to last year. Of course, the missed chances last season could be explained away as a period of adaptation for Salah at his new club – with this reasoning no longer available, it is natural to ask whether this relatively pedestrian start by Salah’s high standards is set to continue beyond the opening few games. However, it is at the very least reassuring for Salah owners that he is pretty much on par with the start he made to his record-breaking campaign.
It is also true that Salah’s squandering of big chances is nothing new. It was well-publicised, mostly by jealous opposition fans, that Mohamed Salah missed the most clear-cut chances out of anybody in the league last season – he was scoring for fun, but was missing his fair share too. This started from the very first game at Watford, where he probably should have had a debut hattrick; it is a product of Liverpool’s high-octane attacking play. There were fantasy managers at the time who were scared away by this wastefulness, but they were quickly made to rue it. A huge part of Salah’s appeal lies in his movement and unerring ability to get on the end of chances. The most important question is whether he has continued to do so this season. He undoubtedly has: the wastefulness that has so frustrated his owners in FPL is equally a sign that he is still doing everything right bar the finishing. This is little consolation to those who have seen a damning ‘4’ by the name of their captain for three of the last four weeks, but it should discourage these owners from selling. Every indication is that the goals will soon come.
This theory is backed up by the upturn in Liverpool’s fixtures in the near future. While it has not been the most taxing start ever faced, Klopp’s side have had the toughest fixtures of any of the top four so far. A difficulty calculation based on league positions puts Liverpool on seventy-five points, while Chelsea are on 60 and City sit on a mere 45. After they face their biggest test yet at the weekend against Guardiola’s men, things start to look a lot more promising for Liverpool in terms of points potential. A run of Huddersfield, Cardiff, Arsenal, Fulham and Watford is about as good as it gets for Klopp’s side – each are set up with vulnerabilities just waiting to be exploited by Liverpool, and any one of those matches could plausibly end up with the Reds netting four or five. Even after this, a sequence of Watford, Everton, Burnley and Bournemouth awaits: the points potential here is perhaps slightly less huge, but the difference is marginal. If there was a time to sell Salah, it was surely three weeks ago rather than on the cusp of one of the kindest runs any top side will ever face.
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However, there are of course valid concerns about hanging on to Salah. Most of them are the same ones that existed before a ball was even kicked – £13 million is a huge proportion of the budget, and there might well be better ways to spend it. The goalscoring form of Sadio Mane makes him a viable alternative for a saving of around 3 million, while Eden Hazard is scoring excellently for Chelsea. Kevin de Bruyne’s return will provide another premium option, and Raheem Sterling appears to be a regular in City’s setup once more after a relatively gradual reintroduction to the team following World Cup duty. Equally, sacrificing Salah for a more budget midfielder is one obvious way of accommodating both Kane and Aguero up front: experience teaches us that this is a pretty reliable front two. There is no easy answer, just as there was no one correct way of doing things right from the start: what is clear is that if Salah is to be rejected on the basis of his relative lack of value, it should not be a decision informed too heavily by his relatively steady start.
There is one fresh concern that has only arisen since the start of the new season, and which may be enough to tip the balance for some people in favour of getting rid of Salah. Rotation of Liverpool’s front three was already likely around European matches, particularly since they acquired more depth in the squad over the course of a positive summer. Specifically, Xherdan Shaqiri’s arrival from Stoke posed a minor risk to the reliability of Salah’s league minutes – this was only a slight concern, however, given that the man dubbed the Egyptian King seemed nigh-on undroppable based on his form from the end of the last campaign. This is no longer the case, as seen by Klopp’s withdrawal of Salah after 65 minutes against Chelsea. Perhaps even more significant is the remarkable renaissance of Daniel Sturridge. His recent form demands game time, and over the course of the kind run of league games he is bound to be handed some starts; this could be at the expense of any one of the front three, or else in a 4-2-3-1 that accommodates all of them, but there is no denying that his resurgence places more question marks than ever before over the safety of Salah’s consistent place in the side. On its own this concern is not great enough to prompt owners to sell, as Salah will surely continue to feature in the vast majority of games, but it is another thing to think about when weighing up the various pros and cons.
On the whole, it would be wise for Salah owners to give him at least a few more weeks. His underlying performances promise a glut of goals before too long, and a very kind run of fixtures might be precisely what is needed to get him back on the sort of form that saw him priced at £13 million in the first place. The fact that others are panic-selling only increases his appeal – Salah as a differential is an exciting prospect. There are many tempting ways of spending the savings from leaving him out, and some of these alternatives may end up being the better way forward, but even with all of his misses it is a fairly safe bet that Salah will ultimately deliver for those that keep him.
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