They are the top scorers for the top scorers. When Liverpool host Manchester City on Sunday, the two most prolific teams in the Premier League come head to head. And their most potent players, in a way that would have appeared astonishing in an earlier generation, are not strikers.
But for Harry Kane’s flurry of hat-tricks, Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling would be the leading the race for the Golden Boot. Instead, they have to settle for leading their way for their respective sides, outscoring both team-mates and their past selves. Salah’s tally of 17 league goals is a career-best tally; Sterling’s total of 14 is more than he mustered in his previous two seasons at Manchester City, let alone one campaign anywhere. Salah has the best goals-per-minute ratio in the division, averaging one every 94. Sterling, netting every 108, is behind only Salah, Kane and Sergio Aguero.
Nor are their hauls artificially inflated. Sterling has scored one penalty, Salah none. Aguero, Jamie Vardy and Wayne Rooney are far more reliant on spot kicks than either. They are wingers scoring in open play. They are doing so in different ways, at different times. Salah is the more explosive, the man sprinting behind defences. Only one of his 17 league goals came after the 76th minute and even that, at Stoke, was in a game he began on the bench.
Sterling has scored the quickest goal of the league season, after 38 seconds against Watford, but has been the late specialist, with seven goals in or after the 80th minute, including an equaliser, three winners and, with his 97th-minute decider at Bournemouth, the latest goal of the season.
Salah has the narrower starting position. Perhaps he is a winger in name only, given that Jurgen Klopp relies on the full-backs to supply width and plays an inverted front three, with the Egyptian and Sadio Mane often more advanced than the false nine Roberto Firmino. Sterling has touchline-hugging duties as Pep Guardiola looks to stretch the game. Then he veers infield into the penalty area. If Salah is often the first line of attack, Sterling can be the second, not springing offside traps but appearing in the space others have fashioned by dragging defences deeper.
They are modern figures but, not, arguably, revolutionaries. Cristiano Ronaldo was the trailblazer. It seemed an extraordinary outlier when he scored 42 goals from the right wing for Manchester United in 2007-08. That began to look like underachievement when he topped 50 in six successive seasons for Real Madrid. The notion of the striker as the selfless foil to a winger emerged, with Karim Benzema outscored by Ronaldo on an annual basis at Real Madrid.
If Salah and Sterling have tapped into a trend, it is one that has been encouraged by their managers. Guardiola has been the scourge of the specialist strikers. Klopp has followed suit. Only Robert Lewandowski has really persuaded either – and both – to field him as a No. 9. Guardiola moved Thierry Henry to the left flank and Samuel Eto’o to the right. He dropped and sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Mandzukic. His relationship with Aguero has been decidedly mixed. The specialist finisher Kelechi Iheanacho was soon exiled. At Anfield, Klopp demoted both Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge.
Their definition of a striker differs from the norm. Guardiola often praises Gabriel Jesus most for his pressing, not his scoring. Klopp’s first Bundesliga-winning Dortmund team had Lucas Barrios in attack, bringing Roberto Firmino-esque scurrying but not the guarantee of goals that Lewandowski later offered.
They have collectivist principles that, in Guardiola’s case, stem from Total Football. They look to share the goals around their teams. If the scoring model was altered when Frank Lampard was the leading marksman in successive title-winning campaigns for Chelsea and then Ronaldo emulated him from the flank, Liverpool and Manchester City are taking it a stage further.
Salah was one of a Fab Four who, before they were reduced to a trio by Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona, contributed 59 of Liverpool’s 81 goals in all competitions. Last season, no one topped 14, but four players were in double figures.
While Guardiola’s Barcelona sides were powered by Lionel Messi’s extraordinary supply of goals, the sense is that he does not want to be over-reliant on any one individual. Sterling has only delivered 21.8 percent of City’s league goals. Six players have at least five; a seventh, Nicolas Otamendi, is on four, while City have the top three in the assist charts.
Yet Salah and Sterling are the faces of a policy, delivering goals from positions where predecessors were supposed to set them up. They are also examples of exponential improvement, players who have surpassed expectations and overtaken more seasoned scorers such as Aguero, Alexandre Lacazette, Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku in the Golden Boot race. They are, in their own way, both the exceptions and the rule.