“The new KINGS on the block,” wrote Didier Drogba on Twitter in response to a picture of him with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané. Less than 24 hours after Salah’s scintillating hat-trick at Old Trafford propelled him past Drogba to become the highest-scoring African player in the Premier League his former Chelsea teammate also retweeted a cartoon in which he places a crown on the Egypt forward’s head.
With Liverpool leading 2-0 against a ragged Manchester United on Sunday and Salah tied with Drogba on 104 goals, there was a sense of inevitability that the big moment would arrive for the player from Nagrig in the Nile Delta. It was fitting that the assist for the record-breaking goal in the 38th minute came from Guinea’s Naby Keïta, with Salah making it 106 seven minutes later before rounding off the rout by becoming the first visiting player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford since Real Madrid’s Ronaldo in 2003 and the first in the Premier League.
A simple comparison with the African players he has surpassed puts into context what Salah has achieved. Whereas the appearance against United was his 167th in the league, Drogba’s tally for Chelsea came in 254 games across two spells that also saw him win the Golden Boot twice. Mané, who moved to Anfield a year before Salah in 2016 and reached the 100-goal milestone against Watford last week, is next on the list having played 237 games, with Emmanuel Adebayor and Yakubu making up the top five with similar ratios.
“He has been so consistent every season,” says the Egyptian journalist Fady Ashraf from the Filgoal website. “The Premier League is the most difficult in the world but no one else has managed to score as many goals since he came to England.”
One key to that consistency has been the ruthlessness that has elevated Salah up with the very best marksmen in Premier League history. Once the fifth-choice left-back for Al Mokawloon’s youth team before being switched to the wing, his rapid development after two years in Switzerland with Basel led Chelsea to gazump Liverpool by signing him for £11m in 2013. José Mourinho afforded Salah only 13 league appearances and he was allowed to leave for Italy after 18 months.
It was at Fiorentina then Roma, whom he joined on a permanent deal in 2016, that Salah found his clinical touch. For two years he worked with Jaime Pabón, a former striker from Colombia, spending hours honing his finishing technique in the back garden of the coach’s house in Rome after returning from training.
“I recommended to look at the ball, to make good choices, with angles that were more difficult for the goalkeepers,” said Pabon. “We did a lot of repetitions, employing that advice.”
The hard work had clearly paid dividends by the time Salah joined Liverpool in 2017, with 44 goals in all competitions during his debut season, including 31 in the league, securing his first Golden Boot. A second – shared with Mané and Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – as Jürgen Klopp’s side won the Champions League in 2019 underlined his qualities as he came fifth, one place behind Mané, in the Ballon d’Or standings.
Salah even scored 22 league goals last season when Liverpool’s form evaporated, surpassing his 19 as they ended their 30-year wait for the title. Although his future has yet to be resolved, Salah has insisted he would like to stay and that the ball is in Liverpool’s court.
With Egypt not having played a tournament during 2021 his hopes of becoming the first African to win the Ballon d’Or since George Weah in 1995 may have to wait until next year. Should he replicate his performances for Liverpool with the Pharaohs at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, it would be hard to ignore his case.
“It’s the missing piece – like [Cristiano] Ronaldo when he won the Euros in 2016 with Portugal,” says Ashraf. “Mo doesn’t have a big achievement with the national team.”
Given Salah’s growing achievements, it is surely a matter of time until he puts that right.