On April 19th, Thiago and Mo Salah were on press conference duties after Liverpool’s 4-0 thrashing of Man United. Many of you probably saw the interview when it circulated on social media, mainly because Salah had said “they made our lives easy” (He cleared this up afterwards by claiming he had been referring to his own defenders rather than United’s).
Yet what caught my attention occurred twenty seconds prior to Salah’s remark. Thiago was giving classic post-match praise to his teammates and made a point to say that such performances are possible because of the “three strikers,” which prompted Salah to interrupt and correct him, claiming that he was a winger. Rather than concede and move on, Thiago grimaced and replied, “striker more than winger, come on.” Salah chuckled.
Was one right and the other wrong? I’m actually not sure, but they both have a point.
Thiago’s education under Guardiola
At Barça, Thiago was one of many small but technical midfielders that helped make possession cool. In those years under Pep, Barcelona were so focused on possession that people eventually got bored. In Marti Perarnau’s Pep: The Evolution, Pep is quite transparent about his need to dominate every game by keeping the ball. Pep tirelessly worked on build-up play, and was less concerned with the final third, because “all we have to do is get it to Messi.”
Perarnau’s account of Pep’s development at Bayern is fascinating on a personal level, but is even more revealing from a tactical perspective. Without Messi, Pep had to become more complete. Sure, he still had world-class players at his disposal, but these players came from a different school of thought than those at Barça. In fact, Pep brought Thiago and Xabi Alonso in for his second season and claims that they – particularly Alonso – enabled Bayern to exert far more dominance over games. A Spanish deep-lying midfielder. Shock.
In his three years at Bayern, Pep reportedly used 23 different on-paper formations due to varying opposition setups or injuries in the squad. At several points, he had just one or two midfielders available and ended up deploying five forwards and wingers (not uncommon today, per se, but at this point it very much was).
Ribery – Douglas Costa – Lewandowski – Muller – Robben
All five across the top of the pitch. Their jobs were to stretch then penetrate the defense leaving build-up duties to the defenders and midfielders. Pep says very clearly, “today we played with five strikers.”
Now take Thiago’s point. Given that he played for such an extended period of time under Pep, it feels right that he would echo the sentiments of his old coach. All forwards whose primary role is to attack the goal are strikers. Not only was Salah the most lethal goalscorer in the Premier League last season, but many metrics back this claim up. He took more penalty box touches (333) and shots per 90 (4.37) than any other player in the division – despite not being a true center forward.
Klopp’s gegenpress and Salah’s increased role in possession
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Salah would argue he’s a winger. At Basel, Roma, and Fiorentina, Salah became renown for long and direct runs down the right flank. You may remember the several goals he scored in Italy for Fiorentina then Roma where he ran the entire length of the pitch. Upon his arrival at Liverpool, he had his doubters (myself included), but he immediately defied expectations as he scored 30 goals in his debut season.
He obviously hasn’t stopped since, as he’s never scored less than twenty goals in the Premier League. Yet Salah has never quite overcome the critics in the back of the room who don’t like the way he plays (although I doubt he cares). He hasn’t really come close to winning a Ballon d’Or, and many fans dismiss his truly remarkable statistical output. This is astounding in and of itself given that the sport (and its fans) is becoming more and more accustomed to the championing of statistics.
It’s easy to claim Salah is a product of Klopp’s gegenpress style, which purposefully sets Salah (and Mané) up closer to the goal, rather than further out wide. But as Klopp has tweaked Liverpool’s tactics to exert more controlled dominance this season, Salah has evolved (and Thiago has flourished).
Rather than stay high and contribute solely through key actions around the box, Salah provided a lot more movement in possession this year. This coincided directly with Klopp’s decision to move Trent Alexander-Arnold further infield to make him more dangerous on the ball. The ever-important triangles required to keep the ball ticking were retained by the rotation of Salah, Trent, and Jordan Henderson, who often pushed up into Salah’s high and wide position. This meant Salah would drop off into a right-back-like position to act as a pressure valve and recycle possession to the other side.
This was new. It meant positional rotations would pull opponents around and open space in the channels between center back and right back. It meant Trent could get more involved higher up the pitch. It meant Salah was more unpredictable given that he wasn’t simply lurking in his patented inside-right position around the penalty area.
Take this example against Chelsea in January.
As Trent crept inside to offer help in possession in order to switch the ball, Salah was already holding his width near the touchline, thereby pulling Rudiger towards him. Henderson sprinted into the channel to provide an option while capturing the attention of Kovacic and the retreating Alonso. Salah fired the ball back inside to Fabinho, who smartly laid it off to the side’s chief creator, Alexander Arnold. With Chelsea’s left-hand side left disorganized by Salah and Henderson’s movement, Salah smelled danger, sprinted in behind, and received an inch-perfect ball from Trent. One-on-one against Marcos Alonso, the outcome was inevitable.
This was one of many instances in which Salah dropped deeper and wider to create space for others.
Yet despite the fact that these positional tweaks saw him play in a seemingly more controlled manner, he still finished with yet another golden boot. That’s just a testament to his ability.
It doesn’t matter what we call him
Klopp’s tweaks in possession probably owe some credit to Guardiola, who originally re-popularized the inverted full-back last season. After Joao Cancelo had clearly become such an asset, both Klopp and Tuchel were quick to integrate their own inverted full-backs to provide an extra body in midfield while simultaneously pushing gifted players into more dangerous positions. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, and Joao Cancelo are now arguably their respective side’s most important players.
Yet aside from this tactical similarity, the principles that guide each of the coaches’ philosophies remain quite distinct. The right-sided channel that is occupied by the relentlessness of Salah at Liverpool is graced by the coolness of Mahrez at Manchester City. They’re both left-footed, but have very different skill sets suited to their current clubs.
Klopp’s Liverpool have made significant strides in terms of controllably dominating games (in the way that Manchester City does) rather than just energetically overwhelming the opposition. Their progression as a side highlighted a different side to Salah’s game this year. One that may foreshadow a different type of eventual replacement for him at Liverpool, and one that makes him suitable for just about any style of play.
Players don’t just fulfill classic (or stereotypical) functions anymore. The distinction between wingers and strikers isn’t always clear. Salah is a prime example. He can operate in various roles, which is part of what makes him one of the best in the world.
Thiago may be right, but Salah has earned the right to call himself whatever he wants.