The 2021-22 season has for Mohamed Salah been one of top-two finishes. First it was the AFCON as Egypt lost the final to Senegal and Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané. The Premier League ended with Liverpool second by a point despite just two losses, and Salah shared the Golden Boot with Tottenham’s Son Heung-min. Between, there were the FA Cup and League Cup trophies. Still to come are the PFA Player of the Year announcement with Salah and Kevin De Bruyne as favourites, the Champions League final, and the potential for this dicing of a decent defence to land him a Premier League Goal of the Season top two:
The coming week figures to determine whether first or second will be the dominant position for Salah’s season. What we won’t officially know until next season’s draw is whom UEFA will name as the Champions League Player of the Year, but it’s difficult to see that being anyone other than Karim Benzema. He’s got an outside chance at setting a new Champions League single-season goals record and has already scored 10 of those UCL goals in six matches against our top 10 teams in the world (more on this later). That’s hardly matchable, but the debate over who’s had the better season becomes more intriguing when we extend it out over all competitions.
First, Benzema’s season. Then Salah’s. Then some head-to-head comparisons considering variables like the strength of the opponents they’ve scored against. We might not reach a decision, but we’ll throw you plenty of numbers to help inform yours.
Karim Benzema 34-Year-Old Karim Benzema is Having the Season of His Life
There’s this guy Lionel Messi who turned 34 before the season and scored fewer than 12 goals in all competitions for the first time since he was a teenager. And that makes sense. Because he’s 34. And this is professional football. There’s this guy Karim Benzema who turned 34 this season and scored more than 32 goals in a season for the first time in his life.
The most comparable season Benzema has had to 2021-22 in his career – in terms of goals, goal involvements and xG overperformance – was a nice clean decade ago in 2011-12 when he won his first La Liga title a season after becoming a regular at Real Madrid. But to say it’s comparable isn’t being fair to 2021-22 because this season has been so much more productive:
It’s even more impressive on a per-90 level with his 1.39 involvements significantly outdistancing itself from his 1.21 of 2015-16 and 2011-12. Those are his only three seasons with significant playing time to reach the 1.1 mark, and this season is well over twice what Benzema had dipped to in 2017-18 (0.64). That was Ronaldo’s last in Madrid, and on another day this might have been an article about a career renaissance post-CR7, but we have a player presently in his prime to get to here.
Before we do that, how do Benzema’s numbers compare to players in Europe’s top five leagues this season? As for Benzema’s 44 goals, one man scored more than him. Robert Lewandowski scored 50 in 46 matches. And one player had more goal involvements. Kylian Mbappé had 60 in 46 matches to Benzema’s 59 in 45, but on a per-90 level, Benzema’s 1.39 goal involvements are unmatched.
Historically, that 59 holds up pretty damn well. We’ve got Spanish assists data for all competitions dating to the early 2010s, and in that time we’ve had 24 individual seasons of 50 or more goal involvements. That sounds like a lot until we tell you Benzema’s entry into the canon makes for a club of five players: Messi (12 seasons of 50+ goal involvements in all competitions), Ronaldo (eight), Luis Suárez (two) and Neymar (one). Benzema’s 59 rank 16th on that list, but 10th per 90 (minimum 900 minutes). Benzema is the oldest player to do it, just greyer than Messi last season, though that was hardly as prolific with 50 involvements in 47 matches.
What’s been so special about the Frenchman’s season, though, is how he’s shredded elite Champions League competition. Forget Sheriff. He’s done so much of his damage against the best (more on that below). And forget the Golden Boot. That’s his, and another historic performance could nab him an all-time record. He’s now scored 15 UCL goals and, as Tom Hancock pointed out on the site yesterday, is a hat-trick away from pushing Cristiano Ronaldo aside as the highest scorer in a single edition of the Champions League or European Cup.
Only Salah, Except for 2017-18 Salah
If you set your FPL team at the start of the season with Mohamed Salah as your captain and just left it, did exactly nothing for 38 matchweeks and let it silently work for you like a retirement fund, you may still have competed with some of the less-adept tinkermen in your league, albeit with some unfortunate numbers around the AFCON. There was no equal in terms of fantasy points, there was no equal in terms of attacking statistics.
Earlier in the season Salah had a shot at some serious Premier League goal involvement history, but that pace did slow down as the season wore on. The thing is, he’s already on that list in fifth with 42 Premier League involvements in 2017-18. In all competitions that season, he ended with 58. He didn’t quite reach that with 46 in all competitions this season, but it was still good enough for the second-best mark of his career, and by a longshot. Aside from this season and ’17-18, he’s managed 37 twice and 36 once. His 31 goals this season are tied for the second most he’s scored, while his 15 assists are a career best.
Thirteen of those assists came in the Premier League as Salah became the third player to lead the division in goals and assists after Andrew Cole in 1993-94 and Harry Kane in 2020-21.
At per-90 levels, Salah followed up his massive 2017-18 (1.27 goals involvements) with a consistent 0.80 in both 2019-20 and ’20-21, but that spiked to 1.05 this season. That’s not a remarkable number for Premier League players across all competitions – Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané all bettered it for Manchester City in 2018-19 – but in the Champions League, Salah is doing what individuals on successful English sides haven’t done in recent years. He’s scored eight goals in the competition so far. OK, that’s nice but nothing compared to the numbers we spoke of above. Five Premier League players have scored more than that in a single Champions League campaign, including himself in 2017-18. Yet it stands that no English Champions League- or European Cup-winning side has had a player with more than that. Ronaldo had eight in 2007-08 for United, and Dwight Yorke had eight in 1998-99. Salah and Liverpool 2021-22: TBD. How’s that for potential firsts?
The numbers aren’t 2021-22 Benzema-esque, but we’ve got to remember Salah is 29 years old, and if he’s any good at 34 like Benzema, that means he’s got some season to go yet. And we also have to remember he’s doing this with up to 38 games per season against the Premier League, which got us thinking…
Comparing the Incomparable
Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah are, as you may be able to tell from their names, different players. Benzema is a finisher through and through, but he’s not going to go at defenders the way Salah will. Salah has electric pace coming off the right wing, but he’s not going to be an aerial threat like Benzema.
And there will be the stances that we can’t compare someone playing in the Premier League to someone playing in La Liga. There’s at least some truth to that just as there’s some truth to us not being able to compare my 30-and-older eight-a-side to the Paraguayan prison league Ronaldinho played in. But global power rankings can at least help with the former.
It’s well-documented that Benzema has scored big goals this season against big teams. Twelve of the 44 have come in his nine games against the top 10 clubs in the world, according to our global rankings. But the average opponent ranking for each of his goals is 57th in the world. Four goals against Chelsea is great, but four versus Mallorca balances that out.
For Salah, that opponent ranking is 37.9. Only three of his 31 goals came against teams outside of our top 70, while Benzema had 17. Six of Salah’s goals came in 11 games against the top 10 which hardly holds up against Benzema’s numbers against the top 10, but that’s why we take into account the average for each goal in each competition. Those opponent rankings perhaps make us look a bit differently at the head to head:
Within that, Salah played Manchester City and Chelsea a combined seven times with three goals. Benzema played them four times with seven goals. There are so many good ways to slice this that there are no right ways to slice it.
But this week, it’s all about winning another trophy. In this competition, first place is the only acceptable finish for Real Madrid. And for Salah and Liverpool, the last thing they want this season is another second.
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