Liverpool thrash Watford as Mohamed Salah cements spot as Premier League’s brightest star

WATFORD — From the first time Mohamed Salah touched the ball to the last you could feel the tension ratchet up at Vicarage Road. The Watford supporters knew that anyone in Liverpool’s red shirt could beat them today but it was the No.11 that they truly feared. Perhaps there was even a frisson of excitement emanating from the home faithful. If you’re not going to stop him you may as well enjoy it.

On today’s evidence, and the weeks that preceded Liverpool’s serene 5-0 win over Watford, Salah is the best player in the Premier League and it’s not that close. His magnificent goal, Liverpool’s fourth, might just be the pick of the eight he has to his name in the top flight so far this season. You can add five assists to that tally as well. The only reason to not label him a one man offense is that Sadio Mane has been almost as excellent. Add in today’s hat trick for Roberto Firmino and that means that the fabled front three all occupy top spots in the top five of the Golden Boot charts.

Certainly Jurgen Klopp is not afraid of garlanding his star forward with the highest of praise. Salah, he insists, is not merely the best in the league but the planet’s outstanding footballer right now. “Who is better than him? We don’t have to talk about what Messi and Ronaldo have done for world football and their dominance. But right now, he is the best.”

He added: “He is for sure one of the best in the world now. For me he is the best. I see him everyday. That makes it easier for me to say it… Others will come but yes in this moment he is for sure on top of that [list].”

Klopp insisted that there has been no great leap to take Salah into the conversation for the world’s best footballer. He would argue that the Egyptian has deserved a place in the highest pantheon of world footballers for some time now, that there has been no great leap over the past few months even if he did note that the glorious through ball he provided for Sadio Mane represented something of a new wrinkle that he had added over the summer.

“Mo is on the top level for years as well and there’s still a lot to come from him because of his desire,” Klopp told CBS Sports. “There’s still more to come from him as well.”

One might argue that this is not the sort of game to buttress anyone’s claims to be the best in the league. After all, teams and players far more ordinary than Salah would have had a field day against a Watford side which seemed intent on showing their new manager just how much work he has to do to keep Watford in the Premier League.

Still, there is a way of going about such favorable assignments. When Salah sniffed blood in the water his assault was remorseless.

On current form Salah is the sort of player who forces managers to rip up carefully honed tactical plans in a matter of moments. It was apparent within 15 minutes at Vicarage Road that Rose, once the sort of player who would give as good as he got against Premier League winners, was going to be bullied off the field if he was left isolated too often against Liverpool’s right winger. On his first game in charge Ranieri almost immediately found himself back at the drawing board.

His 4-4-2 without the ball was abandoned for a back five, albeit one where Adam Masina was close enough to Rose that it was as if Watford were fielding two left backs. There was no way either one of them could defend against Salah alone even if that meant leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold entirely without pressure on occasion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plugging one gap in this colander of a defense did not really offer the home side any greater foothold in the game. But what else was Ranieri supposed to do? He had seen what had happened when Rose was left one vs. one against Salah. The Egyptian simply eased his man off the ball before fizzing a pass off the outside of his left boot into the path of Mane, who would open the scoring. By that eighth minute opener Liverpool might already have had more. Salah had thumped the ball against the bar in the first minute. And in the second, a backtracking defense had done well to merely deflect his shot out for a corner.

From that opening attack you knew the Salah goal was coming eventually. It was worth the wait. As he bids to fill up the goal of the season competition entirely with his own repertoire, this might have been the best he has scored this season. Receiving the ball on the right corner of the D he immediately drew three defenders to him. The shrewd option might have been to slip the ball out to the right where Alexander-Arnold was flying upfield to join an unmarked Naby Keita but he had done enough providing for today.

Studs on the ball he proceeded to roll it this way and that. Only Craig Cathcart could keep up with him when he applied the afterburners to get clear of the morass but in doing so he was sent flying to the turf by Salah’s rapid deceleration. A moment to get the ball out from under his feet and then he wrapped his left boot around it. Ben Foster rightly concluded he would not have got near it had he dived. Better to settle for the best view in the house.

“You could see how the team celebrated the goal that everybody realised it was something special,” Klopp said.

This was an authoritative display not just from Salah but from those around him. A midfield without two likely starters in a fully fit side dictated play in central areas. Naby Keita looked to be the dynamic bridge between the front three and the rest of the team that Klopp always hoped he would be. At the back Van Dijk was imperious. If the forwards ahead of him seemed to be enjoying their assignments you could sense that the centre back might have been hoping for a more challenging task.

All of the above should come with the enormous caveat that Watford were nothing short of atrocious. James Milner was able to feed the ball to Mane, overlap down the left and cut the ball back for Roberto Firmino to net Liverpool’s second, all without any pressure being applied on the 35 year old. It is an understandable tactic to sit deep and demand your opponent break you down but if that is the approach it is perhaps worth ensuring that runners in behind are being picked up, that there is a semblance of communication in between the defensive lines.

It also helps if you can keep the ball for just a moment. Watford could scarcely even get it out of defense. Goalkeeper Foster kept booting it long towards Ismaila Sarr, who found himself competing with players three or four inches taller than him in Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip. It took until the 37th minute for Cathcart to complete a pass, another 20 minutes before he doubled his tally. 

“We were very, very nervous,” said Ranieri. “After five minutes we conceded the goal and some of the goals were our presents. I saw some bad things and some good things. In the last 20 minutes we played face to face with Liverpool, I asked them to play face to face from the first minute.

“Look the defeats are always difficult but I’m a very positive man. I watched very well my players today. I watched where we had to improve. From next week we’ll start to improve.”

In the meantime supporters were forced to settle for small mercies, the loudest cheer the ground heard coming when Juraj Kucka brought the first save out of stand in goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher. That came 55 minutes in. The score was already 4-0.

They will need to get much better quickly if they are to pull away from the relegation zone. Equally they may well not face a firmer test than this Liverpool team, one who simply will not let their opponents inadequacies go unpunished. Right now there is no one better placed to do that than Salah.

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