The making of Mohamed Salah: How Liverpool's dangerman has become one of the Premier League's most feared
As is the more sophisticated nature of the modern game, Liverpool now use a specific dataset for every position on the pitch, that make it easier to properly assess players. As is the nature of the more mature Mohamed Salah, meanwhile, he has hit every one of those markers for his position - and it has made him almost impossible to defend against when on form.
That form has also led to even more obviously impressive numbers: nine goals in 12 games, to break Robbie Fowler’s record for the most striking start to a Liverpool career. It’s fair to say that the Egyptian has already passed some expectations, but not just from his signing for Liverpool. Also from his signing for Chelsea back in January 2014.
That standard of performance and the fact he is facing his former Premier League club for the first time means his development since then will occupy a lot of the focus ahead of Saturday’s match at Anfield, but perhaps more relevant is what it says about the recruitment policies of both clubs, and how his current level will condition the game.
First of all, those close to Chelsea’s hierarchy say there has always been something of a myth about the initial Salah signing from Basel in 2014. They maintain he was not just purchased because his availability coincided with Jose Mourinho’s need for a substitute forward and the opportunity to irritate Liverpool, but that he was actually an entirely logical Michael Emenalo signing. At a mere 21 years of age at the time, Salah was just another young talent signed as part of the longer-term plan to buy the next generation of stars before they became stars - and thereby save a lot of money.
There were some players in the Chelsea squad at the time who didn’t think he was good enough to ever become one of those stars, and there weren’t too many elsewhere disagreeing. That has obviously started to change, but there isn’t anything particularly interesting about his drastic improvement. Those who know him merely put it down to, well… growing up a bit, getting closer to his prime, getting with better age and being surer of himself. He’s no longer the nervous kid he admitted he was at Chelsea, having so developed in Italy and especially at Roma.
Former Swansea City manager Bob Bradley gave Salah his international debut for Egypt in 2011 and says that maturation was matched by a determination, a proper top player’s constant willingness to improve.
“From the first day [with the senior Egyptian side], his speed and explosiveness were apparent,” Bradley tells The Independent. “But, most of all, Salah wanted to get better. He picked up some ideas on his movement very quickly and worked hard on his finishing.”
That is the rather simple story of Salah’s gradual improvement. He has essentially been a slow-burning fast player.
It also reflects a broader truth regarding transfers. As admirable as it is for young players to build, and as much insight and even genius as it takes to spot a special talent that will come through, it is still no substitute for being able to get someone just coming into their prime in the way Salah is. He is ready now in the way he wasn’t at Chelsea, and is thereby a rare FSG signing that has really hit the ground running.
As one figure who works close to Liverpool says, Salah is also one of a few players - along maybe with Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Ragnar Klavan - who absolutely perfectly suits Jurgen Klopp’s way of playing and didn’t need any adjustment or extra instruction. That could be seen in how instantly he integrated, just how well he seems to fit, and how he has so maximised one of the qualities that really has made Klopp’s sides so entertaining to watch and so effective: that exhilarating raw pace.
It will always just be one of those qualities that, when properly honed and used to full effect, is almost unplayable. Salah can be like that when on form, in the same way that Arjen Robben so much more regularly is, albeit with much better technique.
That is one aspect that still feels particularly flawed in the Egyptian’s game. There are so many moments when he is through, only to fluff a shot or hit it in such a conspicuously tentative way. It is testament to his intelligence that he has still got so many goals, as he knows when and how to make those runs for much easier finishes.
Those runs also have more of a value to Klopp than just attacking and finishing. There is also the German's ideal, an effective trade-off, that the proper use of such pace - such as when Salah and Mane are both playing - will help pin the opposition back and make them more cautious, so Liverpool’s defence is strengthened by the mere pattern of the game and the assurance and confidence gleaned from such a forward power.
That is all the more important when Klopp doesn’t have all the players he would want, as is the case right now, and is one of the factors likely to most condition Saturday’s match. How Antonio Conte deals with it will say much. He hasn’t yet beaten Klopp but they have only met twice, and one of those matches was when Liverpool were on fine early-season form and before the move to three at the back, the other away at Anfield.
The wonder is what the Italian will come up with… but also what he would do with Salah himself.
Many in the game in Italy feel he is “almost perfect” for Conte, too, who would know precisely what to do with him.
You only have to look at the transformation and use of players like Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses. This could make it that Conte gets Chelsea to sit back even deeper to give Salah and Mane even less space to run into, before looking to hit an exposed Liverpool defence on the break.
If so, it will be up to Salah to hit those numbers.
Independent News Service