When Mohamed Salah returned to Stamford Bridge two weeks ago to take on Chelsea, he might have been expecting an easy ride.
The home side hadn’t managed a clean sheet all season, and their chances of pulling one off against Jurgen Klopp’s potent attacking trident took another blow when first choice left-back Emerson Palmieri limped off early in the encounter, soon to be followed by centre-back Andreas Christensen. Salah couldn’t have asked for a better chance to score against his old club, with an already weak back line now depleted further, and the whole left side of Chelsea’s formation seemingly set up for him to torment.
It didn’t take long for the Egyptian to realise that things weren’t going to be so straightforward. First, an angled pass played out to the touchline gave him space to accelerate. Looking as thought he expected to reach the ball with time to take a touch and cut back in, he found himself beaten to it by Fikayo Tomori, accompanied by a huge roar from the West Stand.
Next, he tried the opposite. Darting inside from out wide, he thought he had found a crease in the Chelsea defence, and he was frustrated when Fabinho didn’t play the ball he wanted. But his teammate had made the right call – Tomori was matching the run stride for stride, waiting to nip in and cut the pass out should Fabinho make it.
The third time Liverpool’s star man got the ball, this time into his feet on the halfway line, his shadow was there again in an instant, unafraid to get tighter than most would dare to.. This time, already looking a beaten man, Salah just played a simple pass back into his midfield.
Lampard believes that Tomori will get better and better every day. ??#CFC #Chelsea pic.twitter.com/ELOpjvnwFY
— Talk Chelsea (@talkchelsea) September 29, 2019
It was a world away from David Luiz’ horrorshow in a similar situation a few weeks ago. Lampard’s judgement was immediately called into question when he allowed the Brazilian to leave to join Arsenal on deadline day, but his faith in the ability of Tomori to step up couldn’t have been better repaid than with the ways the two of them dealt with Liverpool’s dangerman. Luiz gave away a penalty with a shirt pull on the Egyptian, then followed that up later by racing into a duel with him on the halfway line, only to be turned and burned for pace as Salah raced past to seal the win for his team.
Of course Chelsea didn’t get the clean sheet they wanted against Liverpool in the end either, but only because of two set pieces. In open play, Klopp’s dynamic front 3 were kept extremely quiet by a makeshift set of defenders, thanks largely to Tomori’s excellence in keeping Salah controlled. His ability to cover for Marcos Alonso down the left meant the Spaniard could push forward to great effect, and in the end Frank Lampard’s team were unlucky to not earn a point.
In the 2-0 win against Brighton on Saturday the centre-back was imperious again in a different role, this time playing against a defensive team happy to sit deep and concede possession. It was the perfect chance for him to display his abilities on the ball, and as the stats below show, he didn’t put a foot wrong.
Tomori with another outstanding performance. ??#CFC #Chelsea pic.twitter.com/Hdk7tUZWUJ
— Talk Chelsea (@talkchelsea) September 29, 2019
Tomori looked odds on for a loan this season, with most Chelsea fans thinking his playing time would be limited. Instead, with Luiz and Rudiger out of the picture he’s quickly and quietly established himself as our first choice centre-back. While his academy teammates are scoring, celebrating England caps and monster new contracts in the media spotlight, Tomori is doing equally well – just a little more under the radar.
It’s the same role he played at Derby last year. The media love for Frank Lampard, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount in particular meant that when the dust settled at the end of the season to show that the defender had won the club’s player of the year award, it left plenty of those who had only been half-following the Rams fairly surprised.
All of this is no criticism of Mount, who has stepped up too and been one of the most decisive players in the Premier League this season. It’s just that as a dynamic goalscorer and creator, he inevitably attracts more attention, and his goals and assists will always make highlight packages ahead of moments like those that saw Tomori win his battle with Salah. For a couple of weeks now we’ve even seen Frank Lampard turning questions about Mason or Tammy Abraham’s form into chances to praise the defender – he only managed to offer his glowing assessment of Tomori’s performance against Salah as a response to a question about N’Golo Kante’s showing in that same cafe.
Recognition for his talents is on the way – it’s hard to avoid it when you perform like this. But with Mason and company stealing the headlines, it looks like Fikayo will have to reprise his role as the sleeper hit of the season.