Mo Salah: Is There An Agenda Building

There were many interesting things to come out of our match with Crystal Palace on Monday night. The skill, bravery and vision demonstrated by Naby Keita when he flipped the ball inside himself to send Andros Townsend running off as though he’d missed the bus and was pretending he didn’t want to catch it in the first place was a thrilling moment, for example. Equally the overall performance of Alisson Becker was enough to persuade me that the club was exactly right to break the bank to bring him in. As anyone who reads my pieces or follows me on Twitter knows, I wasn’t entirely convinced that spending so much money on him was the right decision, but I was happy to trust those in the know; that’s especially true as I’d only seen him in the Champions League and World Cup, which is no way to judge a player. It wasn’t all good, mind. Personally I’m slightly concerned about the extent to which Adam Lallana looks off the pace, even though he only had a short amount of time to make an impression. Will be interesting to see how that develops.

Yet unquestionably the most interesting thing of all to emerge from the match is the increasing notion that Liverpool, and Mohamed Salah in particular, were somehow guilty of cheating during the ninety minutes. To be absolutely clear, one of the points that Crystal Palace fans and some members of the media feel were somehow up for debate were when Mamadou Sakho had not one, not two but at least three different swipes at him in the penalty area before he went over and was awarded a penalty. The other was when Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who I thought had an otherwise excellent game, clipped Salah as the Egyptian was bearing down on Wayne Hennessey and was almost certainly going to score, resulting in him being sent off for a professional foul. Not even Roy Hodgson disagreed with that one, despite the fact that he was moaning about the first event as though it was even debatable. It got me to thinking, is there a deliberate narrative forming around Salah that might influence the rest of the season?

He Was A Hero Last Season

The thing I find most fascinating about the manner in which some personalities have been talking about Mo Salah this week is that he was the darling of the media just three months ago. As Liverpool’s season came to a climax and the Egyptian ran away with the Golden Boot, newspapers and journalists couldn’t speak highly enough about him. There were television documentaries on the likes of Channel 4 and radio programmes dedicated to him on the BBC World Service. There were newspaper articles talking all about his life and the struggles he went through as a child. In the build-up to the Champions League final, everyone was raving about him and he was seen as the golden boy of the Premier League, taking the country by storm at the same time as he was uniting an entire country ahead of the World Cup.

It’s truly odd that the mood seems to have turned against him since the final in Kiev, as though he was the one that grabbed Sergio Ramos around the arm and dislocated his shoulder rather than the other way around. Given how universally loved he was last season, why is it that it seems to me that the mood of the nation is turning against him now? Is it because he de-throned the media’s previous one true love in Harry Kane when he netted thirty-two times in the league, more than the Spurs striker has managed in either of his two winning campaigns? Is it because he was injured for the World Cup, thereby depriving us all of watching him and having to put up with absolute dross of an Egypt side instead? That’s the question that I want to explore here. The odd thing is that he’s not a dislikable character in the same way that, for example, Luis Suarez was. He seems to be a genuinely nice bloke who just loves playing football.

Are Pundits Scared Of Liverpool?

Let’s be honest, for all that there are plenty of ex-Liverpool players in the media who are in support of us, there are just as many that don’t like the Reds and the idea of watching us win the title terrifies them. They prefer us as the permanent also-rans, never having won the Premier League and always just missing out when it comes to the major honours. Was the way in which the press treated Rafael Benitez entirely down to xenophobia, or was there also an extent to which sections of the media hated that the Spaniard had the audacity to win big honours with the club? There’ll be some reading this and thinking it stinks of paranoia and that’s fine; if anything, it’s to be expected. You’re not allowed to suggest that there are elements in football that don’t want to see Liverpool do well without someone somewhere saying that you’re paranoid of trotting out the old line of ‘always the victims’, remaining ignorant about the reference to Hillsborough tied up in that phrase.

This is arguably Liverpool’s best chance of winning the Premier League since the competition began, if only some cracks can be found in Manchester City’s armour. On Monday Night Football, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville discussed our defensive performances since Virgil van Dijk arrived at the club, making the point that we’re now best for fewest goals conceded, shots on target and big chances given away. Add to that our thrilling front three and you can see why there might be a fear in the country that this really could be our year. One way of limiting the chance of that happening is to paint a narrative of the most dangerous player from last season being willing to go down too easily, which might influence refereeing decisions around him in the future. Even supposedly neutral sections of the media like the BBC couldn’t help painting a narrative with language like ‘Sakho is adjudged to have brought down Salah’.

How Will The Rest Of The League Respond?

I don’t blame Crystal Palace supporters for their reaction in the ground. We’ve all been there, watching something happen in real time without the ability to see it up close or watch a replay and deciding that it was definitely a dive. Those inside Selhurst Park can be forgiven for thinking that there was something a bit dodgy about the penalty. The player certainly threw himself down a tad dramatically, but the reality is that he spent all of last season not being given nailed on decisions, so it’s hardly a shock that he wanted the referee to see it this time. I also have to say that it wasn’t the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch. It’s the Palace fans and general football watchers who saw events unfold on the television that confuse me. There isn’t anything debatable about the penalty, it just was one. He’s kicked several times and then tripped. Why the fuss and ire from those taking to social media?

It will be interesting to see whether that attitude pervades future matches. Will the Egyptian be booed when we play Brighton, for example? Will the King Power Stadium decide that he’s enemy number one when we take on Leicester in a couple of weeks? I think the answers to those questions will tell us a lot about the narrative that’s growing around the forward. It makes sense, of course. Teams won’t be wanting to concede free-kicks in dangerous positions or penalties that might see them a goal down despite defending well the rest of the time. Behaving in a way that can influence the referee’s thought process is a bit of gamesmanship that teams get up to all of the time. The problem that Liverpool have got is that we weren’t exactly on the receiving end of favourable decisions throughout last season. Tottenham Hotspur got more penalties at Anfield that we did, which I think tells you everything that you need to know about officials not wanting to be ‘influenced’ by the Kop.

It’s Not Just On-Field Things Feeding The Narrative

I hope that I’m completely wrong about the narrative that seems to be forming around the Mo Salah. I hope that he gets every decision in his favour in the next couple of games and that the media go back to loving him. Yet it’s not just the way Palace supporters and boring old dinosaurs like Alan Sugar reacted to the penalty on Monday night that’s given me the feeling that that isn’t going to be the case. Let’s not forget that it was only eight days or so ago that a supposed Liverpool supporter released a video of Salah ‘ignoring’ fans and using his phone whilst driving. That got picked up by the mainstream media as an attempt to paint the Egyptian as some sort of ivory-tower footballer who refused to acknowledge his fans. This in spite of the fact that he’d spent hours during the pre-season signing autographs and taking selfies with supporters. It’s a nonsense idea to try to paint him as anything other than an amazing bloke and brilliant footballer, but something being a nonsense doesn’t usually stop the media from jumping on a bandwagon.

I’m more than aware that this piece will be jumped on by Liverpool’s critics (and some of the club’s own supporters) who will say that it’s displaying a degree of paranoia. If I’m proven to be incorrect over the issue then I’ll be the first one to celebrate. Yet I find it hugely coincidental that the media narrative has switched on a player that everyone was loving just a couple of months ago. When you look at the facts of what has actually happened between the end of last season and the start of this one, it’s concerning. Liverpool spent big money recruiting players that helped us to mitigate some previous weaknesses, though even that’s not the full story as we had £142 million from the sale of Philippe Coutinho. Other than that, the only thing of note is that Mo Salah was fouled in the box and correctly awarded a penalty, then tripped and saw the offender correctly shown a red card. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

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