Is it time to take Mohamed Salah off penalties?

Mohamed Salah is a bit of a problem.

Yes, the Liverpool No. 11 is the joint-stop goalscorer in the Premier League after his double against Newcastle United.

He’s now on 14 for the season along with Manchester City forward Erling Haaland. And yes, the three-time Golden Boot winner also leads the way for assists with eight.

Salah is also the only player in the English top-flight to have 20 or more goal involvements this season and he’s ranked first for Big Chances Created (17).

I know what you’re thinking, if he’s a problem then it is a nice one to have.

In truth, he isn’t a problem. However, his penalty-taking technique is.

The 31-year-old missed one of two against the Magpies in Liverpool’s 4-2 win on New Year’s Day. It now means Salah has missed four of his last 10 in the Premier League for the Reds.

In three of the past five matches in which he’s missed a spot-kick, Jurgen Klopp’s men have dropped points. Fortunately, he bounced back after his penalty was saved by Martin Dubravka on Monday night and inspired the Reds to a 4-2 win, involving himself in all four goals, but do we need to have a conversation about him as the first-choice penalty taker?

Liverpool have a number of options within their team now. Dominik Sozboszlai has scored 16 of his 17 efforts from the spot, Alexis Mac Allister is 10 from 11 from 12 yards out while, perhaps surprisingly, Darwin Nunez has a 100% success rate as a penalty taker.

By comparison, Salah has scored just 31 of his 38 penalties for Liverpool across all competitions.

It gives him a success rate of 81%. Generally in life, anything over, say, 75% is viewed as 'good'. But as a first-choice penalty taker, you want to be 90% or better, right? In theory, it is one of the easiest opportunities to score in football.

If your normal spot-kick taker is only converting every eight out of 10, there’s a problem.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, January 1, 2024: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring the fourth goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Newcastle United FC on New Year's Day at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

This isn’t a dig at Salah either. Great goalscorers don’t always make great penalty-takers. For example, Lionel Messi has missed 22% of the penalties he’s taken throughout his career. Michael Owen scored just 13 of the 23 penalties he took as a Liverpool player. Steven Gerrard missed nine of 55.

Finishing ability doesn’t really come into penalty taking. It has more to do with the mental side of the game. There’s nothing instinctive about a spot kick.

Salah, despite having an impressive record from the spot prior to this flurry of misses, has never been that convincing as a penalty-taker. His efforts were varied and this meant he was unpredictable. He didn’t have a set corner and this kept keepers guessing. But if you watch his efforts back, few hit the corners and most are at good heights for a keeper if they guess the right way. And that is what has been happening over the past 12 months or so.

His erratic nature from the spot has seen erratic returns.

Above is his penalty shot map, via FotMob, in the Premier League this season. Objectively speaking, only two of his six attempts have hit a corner. The other four have been at a good height and area for a goalkeeper, if they guess the right way.

Dubravka didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to thwart the Liverpool No. 11. Neither did Neto in Liverpool’s win over Bournemouth earlier in the season.

Salah struck his effort well and if the Cherries goalkeeper dives the other way it looks like a confident conversion. In reality, though, it was fairly central and easily saved once the keeper went the right way.

A number of his penalties have been close to being saved over the years but because they weren’t – nobody really cared that he wasn’t the most convincing from the spot.

That is the issue with outcome-based analysis. It isn’t a problem until it is. Had you acted before it was a problem, though, it doesn’t ever become a talking point.

Liverpool now find themselves in an awkward predicament. They can’t remove Salah from penalty-taking duties, because of the drama it would cause, and it is unlikely the attacker, someone who deals in goals, is going to give up the spot as first-choice penalty-taker.

So what do you do?

Persist for the campaign and then look to switch things up in pre-season? That might be the best solution, but there is still half of the 2023/24 season left to play.

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