LIVERPOOL, England — Mohamed Salah has been here before. The edge of the opposition box, down Liverpool’s right-hand side, a defender snapping at his heels. A little burst of speed creates a touch, a glimmer of space. The ball is at his left foot. He touches it just a few inches in front of him.
Mohamed Salah has scored this goal before. He seemed to score this goal almost continually last season: opening his body out, wrapping his foot round the ball, generating enough whip to carry it high, across the goalkeeper, arcing into the far corner. It is the goal that won him last year’s Puskas Award. It is the goal that at one point seemed to become his signature.
The mechanics of it are still there. Now, he sets the ball just the same as he used to. He shapes his body just the same as he used to. He is, it is safe to assume, aiming for the same corner as he used to. This time, though, it is not quite enough. The ball curls, but it fades too soon. It picks up height, but too little. Jordan Pickford, Everton’s goalkeeper, barely moves. The ball drifts, welcome, into his arms.
Salah missed more glaring opportunities than that as Liverpool, just as it had last week, visited a team desperate to see it fail and left with a goalless draw. The cost was a little higher this time around: A single point against Manchester United last week took Liverpool to the top of the Premier League table. The same result against Everton on a rain-specked Sunday left it a point behind Manchester City.
Salah was not the only player who might have diverted the course of the game — Joel Matip and Fabinho, in particular, spurned their chances to become folk heroes — but he did it most often. Twice, once in each half, he raced clear, his feet a blur as he bore down on goal. Twice, his touch was heavy. Twice, his timing was awry. Pickford saved one; the defender Michael Keane stopped the other.
But though they were his best chances, it was the first of them, the one that curled straight into Pickford’s hands, that was most symbolic of Salah’s campaign so far. Everything is almost exactly the same as it used to be, as it was in his unstoppable season last year, only it isn’t, not quite.
It was, of course, unavoidable that Salah would be accused of suffering from what is popularly known as second-season syndrome. That is the unfortunate thing about setting quite so high a bar last season: even the slightest drop-off, or even the slightest perception of a drop-off, can be interpreted as an anticlimax.
Anything other than a repeat of the improbable feats of his first season at Liverpool — 32 goals in 36 Premier League games, 44 in 52 in all competitions — would certainly be enough to invite criticism that his run of form had been an illusion.
So it has proved. Salah has scored 17 goals in the Premier League in his 28 games this season. Good, of course; respectable, obviously, more than a goal in every two games; still a smart inclusion in the fantasy team, clearly. Is it a total bettered only by Sergio Agüero, putting Salah ahead of Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the rest of the billions of dollars of strikers in the Premier League? O.K. But still, not quite the same. Not really.
Salah, indeed, is a strange kind of busted flush. He was, according to his manager, Jürgen Klopp, “unplayable” as recently as four days ago, when he twisted and curdled the blood of Adam Masina, Watford’s left back, during a 5-0 win at Anfield. He has been criticized for disappearing in high-pressure games — not always wrongly — but in the one truly do-or-die game of Liverpool’s season so far, in the Champions League against Napoli, Salah scored the only goal. He is still his club’s leading scorer. Even at Goodison Park, even in the stalemate, it was abundantly clear that he was Liverpool’s greatest threat.
That is not to say, though, that the criticism is entirely misplaced. Just as Salah is not a write-off because he has not managed to maintain his furious goal-scoring rate, it is hard to deny that he is not quite the force of nature he was for much of last year.
Perhaps, in the early months of the season, there were mitigating circumstances: the lingering effects of that shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final, the one that threatened his involvement in the World Cup and that hampered his performances in Russia.
And perhaps, even as the injury has healed, its effects are still felt. Klopp dismisses any notions that Salah has lost confidence, but the heavy touches when he was once so deft, the slight stumbles when he was once so sure: they are the surefire signs.
Salah’s newfound profile means he has to deal with the closer attentions of opposing defenders. He has had to do so, at times, in the absence of much creative assistance from Liverpool’s midfield, and for much of the year in a new position, too. He has not been able to pick up the burden when he is not quite as fluid, not quite as free as he used to be.
There is no shame in that, of course. The number of goals he has scored despite all of that warrants respect, rather than scorn. The worry — from Klopp’s perspective, and from Liverpool’s — is that, in a title race that will probably be decided by the very finest of margins, what they need more than ever is the Salah of last year, the one who scored that same goal again and again, the one whose every touch seemed to be golden. If Liverpool is to overhaul Manchester City, if it is to end its 29-year wait for an English championship, it needs the player it had last season, rather than the one who is almost the same, but somehow, infinitesimally, not quite.