When Premier League champions-elect Manchester City travel to Liverpool on Wednesday evening in the quarter finals of the Champions League, it will not just be two of the best teams in England facing off against each other, but also the two best players in the country.
Mohamed Salah has had an incredible debut season at Anfield, leading the Premier League’s scoring charts with 29 goals, while Kevin De Bruyne has taken on a starring role in what is likely to be a record-setting season for City. But who has had the better campaign, and who deserves to be crowned Player of the Year?
THE CASE FOR MOHAMED SALAH
The Egyptian left Roma in the summer and has enjoyed an incredible campaign (Picture: Getty)By Sean Kearns
Forget PFA Player of the Year, Mohamed Salah is the signing of the season and the single most influential player in the 2017/2018 campaign.
Without Salah, Liverpool would be battling Chelsea for a place in the top four. Without Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City would still be runaway leaders in the Premier League.
The Egyptian has confounded the critics that had written him off after a failed stint at Stamford Bridge and he’s on track to break the record for most goals scored by one player in a 38-game season. He’s scored 29 goals in 31 league games – averaging a quite astonishing 86 minutes per goal this term.
Salah’s numbers – 29 goals and 9 assists – speak for themselves and far outweigh De Bruyne’s contribution but it’s the context of his performances that make him a certainty for Player of the Year.
Most goals scored Premier League 2017/18
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)29Harry Kane (Tottenham)24Sergio Aguero (Man City)21
Salah’s scored against every team in the top six barring Manchester United. He scored home and away against Arsenal and Tottenham, once at home to Manchester City when Liverpool became the only side to beat Pep Guardiola’s side this season in the league and another at Anfield against Chelsea.
What’s all the more remarkable is that Salah has maintained an astonishing consistency over the course of the season. Not once has he gone longer than two league games without scoring and he’s scored in 21 of his 31 appearances so far in the Premier League. Simply, no player has had more decisive moments than Salah this season and the award should go to the player with the finest individual season.
Manchester City are likely to be crowned champions on Saturday against arch rivals Manchester United but if De Bruyne is not on his game then City can turn to Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane or David Silva. On their bench they have Yaya Toure, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva.
Jurgen Klopp on why Mo Salah deserves Player of the Year
‘Do I get a vote? No. I think Mo would deserve it 100%. As his manager, I’d say “come on, prove it by playing at this level for the rest of the season”. That’s how it is. Both players have played an outstanding season with obvious highlights. Scoring goals, creating chances, which is what everyone wants to see. I am happy that I don’t have to make this decision. Yes, Mo would deserve it. But if I said now that Kevin De Bruyne should have no chance I’d be lying. He’s a fantastic player and City will be champions so he has a trophy. Maybe we can at least win the other one.’
Liverpool’s front three is as talented as any but Salah has 14 more goals in all competitions than the club’s second top scorer Roberto Firmino. While he certainly benefits from Liverpool’s ultra-offensive system, Salah doesn’t have a world class midfield providing him with an almost endless supply. Instead, he’s often the architect of his own brilliance and at times this season it’s felt like he’s been carrying Liverpool on all fronts.
Only three players have managed to score 30+ goals in a 38-game season – Alan Sherear, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo – and Salah will surely break into that bracket in the remainder of the season. But what makes the Egyptian’s achievements all the more remarkable is that he’s on course to be the league’s top scorer from the wing. Much in the same way Ronaldo once did, Salah has redefined the expectations we’ve placed on wide players and his campaign is comparable with any individual season in Premier League history.
Percentage of team’s total goals scored Premier League 2017/18
Harry Kane (Tottenham)39%Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)39%Jamie Vardy (Leicester)32%
But forget the numbers for a moment. Salah’s contribution to Liverpool’s season extends far beyond his contributions in front of goal. He is integral to how Liverpool play, how they pin teams back and how opponents approach matches against the Reds.
De Bruyne will walk away with a Premier League winner’s medal but that is largely irrelevant here. That’s his prize for playing his part in a great team. This is an individual prize and Salah has been the most impressive individual on every level.
THE CASE FOR KEVIN DE BRUYNE
De Bruyne has flourished under Guardiola’s tutelage as Man City have bossed the league (Getty)By Ewan Roberts
In an era when the top end of the Premier League is more competitive than ever before, it should have been impossible for Manchester City to be this dominant. Yet they are on course to win the title earlier than any team before them, with more points, wins and goals. The football they have played has been both breathtaking and joyous to watch, even for opposition fans, and at the heart of it all has been the irrepressible Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian has evolved again under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola and taken his game to an even higher level, now playing in a deeper role as one of the all-action central midfielders ahead of Fernandinho. He is as capable driving forward from deep and shrugging off challenges as he is ghosting into gaps further up the pitch; he is as adept playing expansive, Hollywood passes – with either foot – across the pitch as he is splitting stubborn defences with a cute through-ball. Part playmaker, part box-to-box battering ram, it’s as if the brain of Luka Modric has been wrapped up in the barnstorming, physical shell of Steven Gerrard.
Most chances created Premier League 2017/18
Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)98Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)84Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)75
He embodies the incredible variety and versatility of this Manchester City team, just as capable of killing you by a thousand cuts or with a short, sharp swing of the axe; De Bruyne can out-pass teams, or straight-up roll them over. He has created 98 chances in the Premier League this season, more than any other player, and laid on a league-high 15 assists. The pass before the pass? He’s got that covered too, recording more second assists than anyone else. And this is all while bringing balance and ferocity in midfield – his 54 successful tackles is the most of any City player.
As well as being a creator for others, when his teammates are huffing and puffing De Bruyne is often on hand to blow down the door himself. There was the weak foot – if you can even call it that – piledriver against Leicester, or the more cultured right-foot curler against Shakhtar. At Stamford Bridge, he tanked through the centre of the pitch and then hammered the ball past compatriot Thibaut Courtois. De Bruyne is pure power and feathery finesse all in one package; enforcer, creator, finisher, passer, match-winner rolled into one.
Kevin De Bruyne on why he deserves to win Player of the Year
‘Well, if I get it, it would be nice, I think, for the team and for me. In one way I believe I deserve it, because I have been very consistent in my form. I am very happy with myself, I am very pleased with how I have played and I didn’t expect to be this good this season to be honest. There is almost no game where my standard has dropped, so I have been very constant. To maintain the level in the amount of games I have played, the amount of minutes, I am very pleased with that.’
‘Kevin is an outstanding, amazing player,’ says Guardiola, who only ranks Lionel Messi above the Belgian. ‘He’s a humble guy, all his teammates love him, he wants to play every single game and he fights until the end.’ That last part is telling: as gracious as De Bruyne is on the ball, he is a grafter off it, not just setting the tempo with his passing but setting the standard with his pressing too.
Admittedly, Mohamed Salah has been superb in front of goal for Liverpool, but it should be noted that his positioning – especially when Liverpool have the ball – is closer to that of centre-forward than a traditional winger. As De Bruyne himself points out: ‘With the statistics, how are we going to compare ourselves? It’s totally different. I played at the weekend like a defensive midfielder, so how you can compare me to an inside forward? I have no idea.’
What happens when Salah and De Bruyne don’t start?
Porto – UCL – DRAW 0-0Crystal Palace – PL – WIN 1-0Stoke City – PL – WIN 3-0Burnley – PL – WIN 2-1Everton – FAC – WIN 2-1Leicester – EFL – LOSS 2-0
Win percentage when Salah doesn’t start: 66.6%
Shakhtar – UCL – LOSS 2-1Basel – UCL – LOSS 2-1Burnley – FAC – WIN 4-1Wigan – FAC – LOSS 1-0West Brom – EFL – WIN 2-1Wolves – EFL – DRAW 0-0 (p)Leicester – EFL – DRAW 1-1 (p)
Win percentage when De Bruyne doesn’t start: 28.5%
Salah would be a worthy Player of the Year, but De Bruyne is the best player for the best team in the country, having an era-defining campaign, and no-one has been so controlling, so complete and so downright dominant as the Belgian. Salah does a few things well, De Bruyne does everything well. Salah finishes moves, De Bruyne starts them. Salah can go 90 minutes toiling on the periphery of matches, his performance re-written by a single swing of his left boot, while De Bruyne is constantly calculating, plotting and affecting matches in every single second he’s on the pitch.
He is the heartbeat of his side, with almost every devastating Manchester City attack orchestrated by their man in midfield, and that is worth far more than Salah’s goals. City’s dominance and depth has created the perception that they would still be unstoppable without any single one player, but that you have to question such a notion with De Bruyne, and him alone, speaks volumes. He stands out even in a side that are tearing up the record books. Would Guardiola swap him for Salah? Not in a million years.