A sharp intake of breath and a raised hand towards his head, Pep Guardiola feared the worst. The game was still in its infancy – the drab occurrence of the following hour or so not yet fully realised – and Mohamed Salah had the ball. Last season, a roar of celebration would have inevitably followed, Guardiola has come to dread it, but now things appear a little differently.
It was Joe Gomez’s header that invited Salah to surge forward and, despite John Stones moving across to confront him, the Egyptian’s trickery and control created an opening and the space to unleash a drive. In recent times, whether Salah found himself five, 10 or even 15 yards out from goal it would not matter, the result would be the same. He scored in three consecutive matches against Manchester City last term to ensure that he became their nemesis and his side’s influential talisman.
Albeit this was a difficult opportunity, Salah ended up scuffing his shot, dragging it wide of Ederson’s post by a couple of yards. What Guardiola has grown to dread did not come to fruition on this occasion, and there are clear signs that this is becoming more and more frequent. Whether it is down to tiredness, or a reluctance to press as vigorously as last season to conserve energy, or simply a lack of form, it was obvious that Salah – and his two sidekicks – are struggling to provide a telling impact.
That missed chance did actually highlight two things. Firstly, Salah’s touch, which was once exquisite and eloquent, is rather clumsier at present. Secondly, that it all came from a hopeful half-chance revealed how Liverpool are not quite the creative force that performed so instinctively and at such breakneck speed last season. For the first time, Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have gone four matches without scoring a goal.
There is certainly an element of the opposition dealing with the ‘fab three’ differently this time around. Space to play into is not as freely afforded to them as in the last campaign. When Salah moved marginally clear of Benjamin Mendy in a race during the first-half, Aymeric Laporte came across to slide the ball into touch. Directing Liverpool’s attackers down dead-ends is one way to stop them being so influential, but they themselves are not helping.
More pedestrian build-up play – be it a conscious decision to be more measured or simply down to fatigue – has led to Liverpool’s creativity decreasing in the final third of the pitch. The loss of Naby Keita in Naples to a back spasm and his subsequent absence from this match was evident as he is Liverpool’s only true dual-functioning combative and creative midfielder. As a result, there was nothing but scraps for Mane or Firmino to feed on, the Brazilian was forced to drop deeper and deeper to even get a glimpse of the ball. At times, he was playing behind Georginio Wijnaldum and alongside Dejan Lovren.
Whether there is a strong sense of tiredness hanging around Melwood – in which case this international break will be welcomed – commitment cannot be faulted. Salah continued to plug away, which will only reaffirm Jurgen Klopp’s belief that this is a temporary dip in form and that an upturn must be around the corner.
For one of the few times this season so far, Salah’s song echoed around Anfield, but rather than following an exquisite piece of play or a well-taken goal, it was chanted to offer encouragement. Confidence amongst the front three is not in as much abundance as last season, and that ultimately comes from the frustrations of things not going their way.
To match what they achieved last season is a tall order – especially for Salah – the performances in the past two months may hint at a regression back towards a mean. But there is more at work here. Currently, Liverpool’s attack does not appear to be in sync. The movement and passing seems to be a foot or two off; it is as if the attack needs recalibrating to sharpen everything up.
This dip in form is most likely in part to fatigue, a heavy and testing schedule but also a systemic issue. The pace of Liverpool’s play has slowed, becoming more predictable and less instinctive and expansive. That is what has ultimately brought Liverpool’s front three back to earth for now at least.