I suppose being as analytic-minded as I can get that I’m going to be hypocritical here. It doesn’t help (or hurt, depending on your point of view) that I love Mohamed Salah in every sense of the word, to an extent that my vulnerability is teetering on “highly damaging.” So take that as you will.
Whenever discussion of “best player in the world” pops up, in any sport, it involves feelings more than most sports discussions. Outside of baseball, which is the most quantifiable, there are always factors working for or against a player that can make an argument either way. Connor McDavid or Nikita Kucherov or Auston Matthews. Kevin Durant or Giannis or Nikola Jokić. Messi or Salah or Lewandowski. Beyond shouting stats and rates at each other, these things are generated because we watch these players do things that leave us a giggling ooze on the floor with amazement and joy. There’s just an aura about them at certain times, and whatever the equivocations are, that you know you’re watching something special that doesn’t come around every day. You watch a player and think, “No one’s doing it better,” even if you’re not exactly sure why you think that.
So whether Mo Salah is the best player in the world or not at the very moment, what is clear is that no one feels like they can miss him taking the field. He’s doing things very few can do consistently on a soccer field. And that at any moment, he’s going to do something that will cause you to say, “Well that’s just stupid.”
I’ll throw another qualifier at you, which is that yeah, it was only Watford yesterday. And Watford is certainly among the Premier League’s Patches and Poor Violet. But I mean… look at this pass:
That’s with the outside of the foot, hardly the most exact way to distribute the ball. And it’s so perfectly weighted, it’s just a puppy turning onto its back begging Sadio Mané to rub his belly. It’s beckoning and welcoming and gentle and vicious all at the same time. Mané doesn’t have to take a touch to control it after it’s traveled some 30-40 yards. It’s just waiting to be easily slotted home.
That’s genius enough for one afternoon. But Salah was hardly finished:
If that looks familiar, it’s because in his last game:
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Salah’s pièce de résistance yesterday is to see exactly where it started:
Who does this two games in a row? It’s almost insulting. And it’s how you get labeled the “best player in the world,” when it looks like you’re playing a different game than the other 21 players on the field. That they’re only there to provide a stage.
Of course, weighing down, or balancing out, those who lead with their hearts are those who lead with their brains and have to throw numbers at you. And I’m usually in that crowd, so you can see my conflict.
By the numbers, Salah is among the best without being anything near definitely so. Karim Benzema at Real Madrid has 13 goals + assists to Salah’s 11, and Erling Haaland has matched Salah’s 11. Florian Wirtz at Leverkusen has lapped the field when it comes to goals + assists – penalties per 90 minutes (all stats from FBREF.com).
When it comes to expected rates, which cross out the noise of other people’s finishing abilities, Salah ranks fourth among the top five European leagues, trailing Lewandowski and Kylian Mbappe in expected non-penalty goals + assists (and Andrei Kramaric of Hoffenheim which… what?). But I could say that Lewandowski plays for the Gashouse Gorillas of Germany in Munich and they’re so far above the competition there that it’s skewed. Or that Mbappe is just beating up Ligue 1 again. There’s probably an element of truth in both, while those statements themselves are exaggerated pretty grossly.
I could point out that Salah’s massive improvement this season in his chance- and shot-creation for others has Sadio Mané ranking right next to him in the Premier League in a few scoring categories like goals, expected goals, and shots. But you could say that Mané has been one of the league’s best forwards for years now, and maybe Salah is benefitting too. We’ll spin our wheels.
All of that discussion would miss the point. We use numbers and stats to give us context after the fact. To learn what went on. But in the moment, during the game, we’re there to feel. Thrill of victory, frustration of defeat, the release of seeing a goal, to be wowed. Salah at the moment is the one making the most people feel the most things right now. Benzema may be doing more for a worse team. Lewandowski is just clockwork. But your Twitter feed is littered with Salah highlights.