Tuesday 12 December 2017

'Devastating' Mohamad Salah worth every penny for Liverpool

Mohamed Salah celebrates for Egypt
Mohamed Salah celebrates for Egypt

James Horncastle

As Monchi explained a week ago and Liverpool are now fully aware, “Roma is not a supermarket.” There are no discounts, no bargains to be had down its aisles.

The Serie A runners up bear closer resemblance to one of those haute couture boutiques on via Condotti. Unlike the Eternal City’s restaurants, its shops can leave you feeling a lot lighter and the weather in the Italian capital at this time of year isn’t the only thing to make you sweat; just wait until the credit card bill drops through the post.

The €40m price Liverpool will pay for Mohamed Salah is, as they say in Italy, Faraonico; an extravagance associated with the Pharaohs. Monchi’s first sale as Roma’s new director of sport is a club record windfall and allows the club to get its accounts in order before they need to be with Uefa on June 30. One would have thought an awareness of that might well have strengthened Liverpool’s bargaining position.

But Monchi’s reputation extended far beyond Sevilla’s city limits for a reason. In the poker game that is the transfer market he always smiles as if his hand is the hand to trump them all and in these negotiations the cards Monchi had to play were many.

While Roma could certainly do with one big sale for reasons of Financial Fair Play, Monchi could point to Salah’s age, the two years left on his contract and the fact they were under no obligation to sell this particular player. Other members of Roma’s squad are of interest to Europe’s elite and would command similar, if not, bigger fees, from Antonio Rudiger and Kostas Manolas to Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman.  

You then have to consider the going rate for a blue chip Serie A winger. Inter are asking €52m for Ivan Perisic and, while it’d be remarkable, even amid interest from Manchester United, if anyone stumped up that figure - more evidence, if ever were needed, of a Premier League premium and a market gone mad - it has been useful in providing Monchi with a context in which he could argue that Liverpool are in fact getting fair value for Salah.

After all, the Egyptian is nearly four years’ Perisic’s junior, and only turned 25 last week. He also scores and sets up more goals. Last season, Salah combined for 26 in Serie A and was only behind Napoli's Jose Callejon in assists and chances created, which is all the more impressive when you consider he missed a month of the season, while Egypt were engaged in the African Cup of Nations where they were losing finalists. 

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To go this big for Salah, Liverpool must really like him, but, in truth, there is an awful lot to like. For starters he shouldn’t be judged on not making it at Chelsea any more than Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Juan Cuadrado. His move to Italy, first with Fiorentina, where his instant impact meant he went down as one of the great January signings of recent memory, and then Roma, has been a big success. If a word-cloud were created featuring adjectives used by managers to describe Salah, the most prominent would be “devastating.”

Defenders struggle to live with his pace and, once he turns on the afterburners, they are often left smouldering in the scorched earth he leaves behind. “We knew he was one of the quickest players with the ball at his feet,” his former Fiorentina manager, Vincenzo Montella observed. “Perhaps only Messi is quicker than him.” 

His coach at Roma over the last 18 months, Luciano Spalletti also began to feel sorry for some of Salah’s opponents. “You need a moped to catch him,” he said. And when ‘Momo’ told Wojciech Szczesny that some of his friends at school in Egypt were faster than him, the Arsenal loanee declared: “I want to meet them,” jokingly imploring his teammate to "sign them for Roma.” Football is not the 100m, though, and Spalletti has worked on a number of aspects of Salah’s game, bringing more order to his anarchic style.

An oft-repeated criticism of Salah is his intermittent ability, as he runs like the wind, to slow the game down enough in his head to process the right shot selection or make the right pass.  “At times,” Spalletti remarked, “he does things at speed without thinking and without making a decision.” That markedly changed for the better this year, though, as Salah allowed himself a split second more to look up, take a breath and opt not to do a Gervinho.

No longer as unpredictable to his teammates as he was to their opponents, the main beneficiary was Edin Dzeko.  Seven of Salah’s 11 assists were for the Bosnian, who wouldn’t have become Capocannoniere without Momo’s assistance. Tactically Spalletti also impressed on Salah the need to get back into position as quickly as possible once Roma lost possession. He recognised that Salah’s skill for stretching rivals was occasionally a double edged sword as it sometimes left Roma all strung out and vulnerable to the counter.

Salah saw where his manager was coming from and made the adjustment to his game. In doing so he embodied just what Spalletti was trying to achieve at Roma. Using video analysis at a press conference to illustrate this point, Spalletti flashed up a clip from a 5-0 win against Palermo. Roma were 4-0 up with 15 minutes to go and Salah had already scored twice. He could have been excused for taking his foot of the gas. Instead, as Roma lost the ball and Palermo countered, he sprinted the length of the pitch, nicking the ball away from an opponent just in time to stop a certain goal.

That sense of awareness, willingness to sacrifice himself, and incredible athletic ability will be as valued by Jürgen Klopp as the goals and the assists Salah will bring, which former club Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal - the English teams he made his name scoring against - know only too well.

To paraphrase Biggie Smalls Mo Salah means Mo problems for Premier League defences.

Independent News Service

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