• Charles E. Cheadle

Is Salah the Best Football Player in the World?

It is difficult to define what constitutes the ‘Best Football Player in the World’. Commonly, we look to strikers and goal-scorers as being the best as they are the individuals who bring glory to their team and win games. We often overlook players in the backbone of the squad; midfielders controlling the tempo of the game and providing assists to the strikers; defenders starting attacks, winning the ball back and often making crucial challenges preventing a goal; goalkeepers saving penalties, making finger-tip saves and distributing the ball effectively. Hence, strong arguments can be made in favour of non-strikers being the best football players in the world. For instance, in 2019, defender Virgil Van Dijk was named runner-up in the race for the Ballon d’Or, being key in the transformation of Liverpool into a title winning team.

However, as obvious as it sounds, a football game is won by the side that scores more goals and strikers score goals. I do recognise that more often than not, a striker is only as good as his team behind him. Would Messi be rated as highly as he is, playing for Scunthorpe United? Nevertheless, it is difficult to compare players in different positions and, even in the year Van Dijk lost out on his Ballon d’Or, he was pipped by the attacker Lionel Messi, possibly demonstrating the higher merit awarded to strikers. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, I will take the common approach in classifying only attackers and strikers as being the qualifying position for the best player in the world.

Generally agreed upon are these main criteria that make-up the ‘Best Football Player in the World’:

· Their statistical involvement in goals – be that assists or goals.

· Closely linked to their statistical involvement in goals: as an individual, how important they are to their team’s success.

· Although more superficial, their style of play: be that performing ordinary tasks to the highest of standards – often attributed to Cristiano Ronaldo – or displaying an unorthodox and unworldly style, such as that shown by Messi over his career.

Currently, there are a collection of players considered to be in the category of ‘Best Football Player in the World’. Strong arguments can be made for each. These players include: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool; Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, Paris Saint Germain; Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United; Karim Benzema, Real Madrid; Lewandowski, Bayern Munich and Erling Haarland of Borussia Dortmund.

In terms of statistical involvement in goals such as goals and assists, three players from this list stand out: Salah, Lewandowski and Benzema.

In his league, the Bundesliga, Lewandowski has scored 13 goals so far this season, 3 more than Salah and Benzema. However, Salah and Benzema in their respective leagues, have both made 7 assists, 6 more than Lewandowski. Arguably, Lewandowski’s higher number of goals can be traded off against his deficit of assists compared to the other two. It must be noted, however, Haaland has scored 9 goals from 6 games and assisted 3 – unlike the other players here who have played 11 games each – but he lacks involvement in goals in other areas, so can be disregarded.

Nevertheless, statistics from the Champions League tell a different story. Lewandowksi, so far, is averaging 2 goals a game, scoring 8 from 4 games. Meanwhile, Salah has 5 goals from 4 games, and Benzema 4 goals from 4 games. Clearly, statistics, not only from his respective league but also in the Champions League, point to Lewandowski as being the ‘Best Football Player in the World’.

However, statistics without context are just numbers, and can often portray a lie. We must go deeper and look into the context behind these statistics. Two questions need to be answered in order to truly understand the value of these statistics:

1. What is the level of the league in which the player performs?

2. What is the level of the Champions’ League group in which the player performs?

In response to the first question, most people generally regard the Premier League to be home to the highest level of footballing standards, and thus the toughest league to play in - of course such a statement is debateable, but it is not the purpose of this article to delve into this. In turn, Salah is producing statistics that are rivalling, if not beating, players (in this list) in leagues less prestigious than the Premier League. Although hard to quantify, this is a major accolade that must put him at the forefront of the argument for The Best Player in the World.

In response to the second question, Salah’s Liverpool have probably been placed in the toughest group in the Champions League, consisting of the teams: Athletico Madrid – the current La Liga Champions, AC Milan and Porto. Known as the ‘group of death’, Salah’s 5 goals in 4 games against some of the better, and in form, teams in Europe, only goes to further propel him to the top of the list for Best Player in the World. Whilst Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich have been placed in a group with FC Barcelona, they are certainly not the powerhouse they use to be. The same can be said for Benzema’s Real Madrid, being drawn up against Inter Milan, it is fair to say they are no longer a real European threat.

In summary, the caveat to Lewandowski’s supremacy in statistics is that he has mainly performed against sides of less quality than Salah. Salah has performed against the best teams in the world and which almost rivals Lewandowski’s statistics.

Moreover, looking at the statistics in more depth to determine how important each individual is to their team, Salah takes the top spot. Salah, by some margin makes the most key passes in a game by over 1 against Lewandowski and 0.3 against Benzema. He also completes the most dribbles in a game and takes the fewest number of shots per game. He is not even a striker like the other two! Taken together with goal and assist statistics, further shows Salah’s added value to Liverpool compared to the others. Of course, undeniably, all the players considered in this list to be the ‘Best Football Player in the World’ are important members to their teams, but some more than others. Surely, the player that has the most impact on his team should be regarded as the ‘Best’?

Whilst statistics are important when answering this question, football is a game more than just numbers. In order to bridge the gap between statistics and the reality of watching a player live, perhaps it is necessary we evaluate a player’s style of play, even though this is entirely subjective.

Messi plays football like something of a super-human, doing with the ball things that seem out-of-this-world and unpredictable, with no other player able to replicate this. Deservedly, known as ‘The Magician’.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, performs regular tasks such as heading, shooting and skills to the highest of standards consistently; he is the complete, trained, product.

Neymar engenders Brazilian football with his flair, trickery and confidence.

M’bappe with his ridiculous speed and shooting.

Haaland with his power and aggression.

Lewandowski with his positioning and clinical ‘poacher’ style of play, similar to Benzema.

Salah’s style of play is harder to sum up. His style is almost a paradox; he is predictably unpredictable. For instance, many people say “he should be easy to defend, all he does is cut inside”. However, watched closely, one will notice how he varies his play, at first, he may choose to go on the outside of a defender, planting a seed into their head that he will try the same thing next time, but then cuts in on the inside the next time. Even if unsuccessful initially, it is only a matter of time before a defender falls for his style.

From a biased point of view, to me Salah and Messi play the most entertaining style of football, placing you on the edge of your seat when they get the ball, feeling a wave of excitement and tension when they start dribbling, bursting into laughter after you witness what sublime goal they have just scored. You sit down after, shaking your head in disbelief. For me, no other player on this list gives me this almost indescribable feeling.

Unfortunately, I think the Ronaldo – Messi era of domination is over… Yes, this season we have seen glimpses of their brilliance. Messi’s sensational goal vs Manchester City to kill off the game. Ronaldo’s numerous goals to revive Manchester United’s hopes of success such as his volley vs Atalanta. Whilst statistics don’t have a human face and can’t do justice to these moments, they must be used in this case to highlight how Messi and Ronaldo are not having as great an impact as others now.

In conclusion, I cannot simply say Salah is the best player in the world simply due to his style of play. However, when taken together with his statistics, the context behind them and the value added to his team it seems clear to me that he is currently ‘The Best Football Player in the World’, only rivalled by Lewandowski. If Salah continues in the form he is in, and wins a prestigious competition with Liverpool, it would be a major injustice if he is denied the Ballon d’Or this season.