2017/18 was the season of Mo Salah.
With 303 points, the Egyptian king of FPL scored an astonishing 1% of all points this season. This was off the back of a frankly ridiculous 32 goal, 13 assist haul this campaign.
He also (according to Talisman Theory data in our latest podcast) scored 14.6% of Liverpool’s FPL points this season.
However, recent posts in Official FPL’s twitter feed seem to be hinting they’re considering reclassifying him as a Forward for 2018/19:
— Fantasy Premier League (@OfficialFPL) May 21, 2018
Ian Wilson recently calculated the corresponding points achieved if he were to have been a Forward from the outset:
Had Salah been classified as a forward this year, he would have scored 274 points:
303 – 15 (CS) – 32 (goals) + 18 (bonus points)
The 18 additional bonus points would have put him on 44, 13 more than the next highest (Kane).
— Ian Wilson: FPL Strategic (@FantasianPL) May 20, 2018
That would still comfortably have “won” FPL for him this season, with Sterling on 229 and Kane on 217.
I thought it was worth having a look into this question a little more, though. One would hope that “‘cos he scores lots of points” isn’t justification to change Salah to a Forward.
So I set out to investigate if there’s any justification for Salah being reclassified through using FPL and player positioning data.
Let’s have a look at someone who was reclassified last year as a starting point: Mo’s team mate Bobby Firmino.
Firmino (2016/7) v Salah
The first port of call here was, obviously, heat maps. After last year’s activities, Firmino was reclassified to a Forward for 2017/18. If Salah is being mooted for a reclassify too, then comparing his heat maps this season to Firmino’s last season looking for similarities is the first thing to do.
Here’s a comparison of Firmino 16/17 to Salah 17/18:
This information shows that Firmino plays a more central role but loves to veer to that left wing channel on occasion – he used to play there principally (e.g. under Brendan Rogers when he first arrived on Merseyside) before conversion to an out-and-out forward under Jurgen Klopp. In contrast, Mo is certainly seen more often on that right hand side of the pitch. The outtake is therefore that Salah plays wider more frequently than Firmino.
To make this a bit less noisy, I thought it best to look instead at a different view: average positions by Gameweek. This threw up the following:
What we see here is Mo’s propensity to cut inside writ large. His average position most games is an inside forward in many respects rather than an orthodox winger, whereas Firmino stuck to the central berth last season.
It’s worth mentioning that Bobby maintained a similar positioning profile (except in GW33 v Everton – wtf was going on there!?) this season:
Watching Liverpool, you see Firmino’s main role as being to run the opposition’s defence, creating pockets of space for Salah, Mane and co to exploit. He can create and finish chances himself, and plays in the no9’s space – but as for his actual role, someway between a Football-Manager-esque Defensive Forward, a False 9 and a Deep Lying Forward is truest.
Something that’s interesting is comparing Firmino and Joshua King last season, who was also reclassified as a forward, along with Diego Costa*:
Despite King’s heat map being less intense (fewer games played; less time in the opposition half in big games), there are similarities in positioning profile. This seems to demonstrate some positional and/or eye test based reasoning behind why both men were reclassified.
Salah is dissimilar to these players. But that leads to the inevitable follow-ups: who is he most like? And does that help us to assess whether he should be reclassified or not further?
I had a look at a couple of stats to see if there was a pattern to give us another lead. Two key performance indicators (KPIs) to me for attacking players seem to be penalty box touches and shots in the box.
Almost unsurprisingly, Salah took the most penalty box touches this year among midfielders and forwards with 282. This is followed by Raheem Sterling on 263, with Harry Kane in a distant 3rd at 229.
Last season, it was Diego Costa who beat Alexis Sanchez for the most pen box touches, with Firmino figuring in 4th for pen box touches (this year, he was in 6th with 198). Perhaps this backs up the case for Firmino being reclassified, but it quickly begs the question as to why Alexis Sanchez and Raheem Sterling were not.
Looking at shots in the box reinforces question marks around why Sanchez in particular was not reclassified last season, as he comes up once more (just about, if we say Kaku/Ibra are joint 4th) in the top 5 or 6 for a metric. Kane retained his crown for shots in the box this season, with Salah in second.
Reviewing these KPIs directs us to the ex-Arsenal midfielder as a comparison point.
Sanchez (2016/7) v Salah
Sanchez is a great comparator for Salah, in that he was a high scoring midfielder in 2016/17 in terms of FPL points and stats, as well as playing as the no.9 for Arsenal for much of last season. If it was this time was last year, we’d have maybe been wondering if Alexis was to be a forward in 2017/18. He scored 24 goals and 11 assists to give him 263 last season, a talisman indeed with 13.7% of his side’s points (a similar ballpark to Mo’s 14.6%). But, as we know, any reclassification failed to materialise.
With output and stats similar, I compared Mo’s heat map this season with Sanchez last time round, and also put them next to King and Firmino:
You can see a difference between the heat maps of Firmino and King, which tend to be slightly more spread across the final third and Sanchez and Salah, who are concentrated to one side of the pitch. You can see that Sanchez (first pane) is predominantly an inside forward too, on the other side to Mo, but does not gravitate too much to the right wing.
It’s also worth noting that, in terms of average positions, Sanchez was even more central than Mo last season:
Bearing in mind Sanchez’s centrality here, if he wasn’t reclassified as a Forward then I’m not sure Salah can be either in terms of position.
Underlining this point, I also brought Eden Hazard* into the comparison, who scored 16 goals and supplied 9 assists for Chelsea in 16/17:
These three players look very similar to me in terms of position on the pitch: Sanchez and Hazard, if anything, are more evenly positioned across the final third than Mo. Hazard can also take a central “no. 10” berth (and indeed reluctantly played False Nine for Chelsea this season), as we know that Sanchez can play at number 9.
The upshot of all this is: if neither of those guys were reclassified after last season, then I don’t see why Salah would be by that precedent.
There are other explanations beyond the data, of course.
It’s worth remembering that there may be a simpler reason for Firmino being reclassified: with Daniel Sturridge’s fall from grace, and Divock Origi being in and out of the team, Liverpool actually had no striker in terms of FPL for large swathes of 2016/17. I therefore wonder if Firmino was a convenient reclassification to some extent, as well as a position-based one, because there was a “vacancy” for Liverpool in that spot, whereas arguably at Arsenal with Lacazette’s arrival in the summer (as well as Welbeck and Giroud hanging out) there wasn’t.
There’s a bit of a deeper “meta” point here, too: as Nick mentioned on our recent podcast, the Forward position is really light in terms of points per value. There were really only a small pool of viable forwards on average at any given time this season, especially towards the end when it narrowed to 4 or 5 really in consideration (Kane, Auba, Jesus, Vardy, AN Other). So part of their argument for reclassifying Mo could be giving us more value in that role – even if he hits ~13.0m.
There’s also point to be made that modern football has more nuance that this all assumes, and that Liverpool play three forwards which interchange positions in a fluid attacking unit. I get that.
But FPL doesn’t reflect that: the GK/DEF/MID/FWD classifications, a relic of a bygone age to some extent, are nonetheless a simple system I doubt FPL will abandon lightly as it remains very accessible for newcomers and/or less engaged players. They’re still not able to decide what an assist is, nor provide more transparency around BPS, so I can’t imagine them doing much about this any time soon (though I’d love to be proven wrong).
Either way, I think we’ll see a “Kane effect” with Salah at the start of next season whatever he is classed as, and even if at the super premium price tag being mentioned (by Official FPL themselves!):
#FPL Managers will happily pay £14m for Salah
— Fantasy Premier League (@OfficialFPL) May 17, 2018
Managers will start off enthralled by the amount they can spread through teams without Mo in them. Yet, a slow drip feed of Salah sides as we get closer to the deadline, coupled with the fact we know the fixture computer keeps the big sides apart in Gameweek 1 which may give a strong matchup on opening weekend, will probably see inevitable high ownership numbers come the first deadline of 2018/19.
In terms of classification, though, I think Salah has more in common with those who weren’t reclassified last season than those who were. On that basis, I think he’s in the right category as a Midfielder and shouldn’t be reclassified next season.
Special thanks for Hindu Monkey, Richard Skeen, Richard Orford and Eric Clump on Twitter (that would sound so bizarre in any other context) for the conversation that led to this article. Additional thanks to HM for proofing.
*I also looked in depth at Diego Costa, Joshua King and Eden Hazard as background research for this article, but took the editorial decision to remove these digressions for concision. There are many many ways to analyse this but I didn’t want to write a PhD thesis – I’m sure some readers may have better way of looking at this question, so please do if this article provokes some thinking: that’s the point of it 🙂