Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah and the Fight Against Easy Narratives
The current season is shaping up to be one that we’ll probably (hopefully) talk about for years to come, and Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah are two of the biggest reasons why. Thanks in large part to their star attackers, Manchester City and Liverpool are breezing through the year, breaking records like it’s their hobby. Despite that, people sitting on the sidelines have still, at times, wondered (sometimes with bonus racism!) whether or not the star players on either team are actually any good.
Let’s start off by establishing some ground truths: Sterling and Salah are two exemplary players, and their clubs and the Premier League are lucky to have them. Sterling has an expected goal total of 0.33 per 90 minutes and an expected assist total of 0.39. Salah has one of 0.47 and 0.43. Moving out of the expected realm and into results, their scoring contributions per 90 (combining goals and assists) are 0.98 and 0.87 per 90, the third and sixth best total per 90 (of players with more than 800 minutes played).
Sterling has continued his run of sublime shots this season, rarely taking a shot that isn’t on target. Look at this shot against Arsenal and Cech. With an xG of 0.05, Sterling dribbled the ball past seven players, shot past five of them, and caught Cech just that much out of position that it sailed home. He’s so good, City fans didn’t even realize the ball had gone in until Sterling began to celebrate.
And even though this was at the start of the season and Sterling had ended the prior one spectacularly well, we were already hearing pundits pundit in tremulous tones about this mysterious affliction Sterling had where he just kept missing shots.
The aforementioned affliction is, of course, all in their heads. But once a narrative takes hold it’s hard to shake. This season Sterling’s goal total of 9 is actually significantly above his xG of 5.73. He’s spent the season finishing the ball with aplomb. Here’s his shot distribution so far:
To paraphrase the immortal and musical Alexander Hamilton: Sterling very rarely throws away his shot. Particularly notable here are Sterling’s four goals from relatively low xG shots, opportunities where he’s maneuvered himself and the ball to catch the goalkeeper out of position. Here’s his spectacular strike against Newcastle, for example.
So if he’s only taking the most particular of shots, what’s he doing on the pitch for an entire game? The answer is: pretty much everything. Sterling is (still) an incredibly gifted player and playmaker. If anything, he’s elevated that part of his game.He’s beating more people off the dribble than he was last season, 2.72 vs 1.54, and his assists, key passes, throughballs, and passes into the box have all ticked higher. It’s probably statistically safe to conclude that he’s still a great player (insert joke about confidence intervals here).
Sterling isn’t the only player that The Narrative has spent time wringing its hands over, though. Liverpool are good. They’re really good. But while it might already be lost to the sands of time, and a title race, the first stretch of the season featured a Salah goal drought for everyone to focus on, despite it being a completely manufactured issue.
Salah’s xG/shot is slightly improved from last season, and much like Sterling, he’s netting more assists this season per 90 minutes. His finishing wasn’t exactly perfect at the start of the season, causing the goal scoring dip, but since his numbers remained strong it was definitely not enough that it should have caused any real worry.
Of course, Salah is coming off a season where he just couldn’t stop scoring, and it makes some sense that everyone became more concerned about the shots he missed than how well he continued to play. It was a non-issue though, and sure enough Salah’s goals and assists this season have ended up just fine.
There’s no problem here, folks. This shouldn’t be the narrative you’re looking for.
And that brings us to the other issue that can’t be avoided when discussing Sterling, Salah, and the constant doubt that surrounds them (Sterling more aggressively and with more vitriol than Salah): when you look at the numbers and then listen again to the questions being asked about them, it’s hard to think of a reason why the myths persist without asking some very difficult questions about The Narrative being spun and who benefits from it.
We’ve spent a large part of December talking about how that narrative (and everything else about the media scrutiny around Sterling) is built to break down the best players, especially when they’re Black (for starters: see Sterling’s own writing on the topic). That’s good. The conversation on race and sports shouldn’t be a one-off thing that just comes up any time we have a particularly egregious incident.
The other side of The Narrative is what we see with the coverage surrounding Salah: the ‘Egyptian King’ has been placed on a pedestal that’s rarely afforded to Muslim and foreign players, and the stories that surround him very often color him as the exception. The problem with this part of the narrative, of course, is that lauding someone for being exceptional despite their race or religion means their race and religion often becomes the focus when they do something wrong. The tweets about Salah’s soft penalty against Arsenal are pretty indicative of just how ugly that gets
And we should also acknowledge what focusing on this narrative takes away from us (beyond it being dehumanising and terrible, of course): the ability to actually have legitimate conversations about the ways that both Sterling and Salah are excellent. There’s no avoiding the fact that both Sterling and Salah are in the news more often than not, and every single thing they do will be scrutinized, analysed, then repeated for a million years. We can, however, move the conversation beyond simply questioning whether or not they are actually good.
Header Image Courtesy of the Press Association