In December 2020 all it took for Mohamed Salah to light the fire was his choice of publication: an interview with the Spanish sport newspaper AS was enough to indicate the scope of his horizons and where his mind might wander as time ticked down on his Liverpool contract.
One year on and another interview, although this time there were no subtle inferences and Salah was obliged to spell out his contractual stalemate in much blunter terms.
“I’m not asking for crazy stuff,” was his summary of the long negotiations with Liverpool over the renewal of his contract. Although what qualifies as “crazy” in the salary wars of the modern Premier League depends on whether you are the one playing or the one paying.
The strategy pursued by Liverpool through this negotiation was repeated once again this week when Jurgen Klopp responded in his press conference. The club are not challenging the player publicly, and they are not even prepared to contest Salah’s claim that his salary demands are appropriate.
All that is certain is that Liverpool are simply not prepared to meet them.
As for Salah, it is hard to know what he does next.
His record this season is that of the most effective attacker in Europe’s top five leagues, with 16 goals, nine assists, 41 chances created. His game has redefined what many of the leading clubs want from a forward player.
What he lacks is a viable alternative destination to drive the market for his salary level. Real Madrid and Barcelona are still buying players – just not at the level of Salah. Real seem confident that they will outbid Paris St-Germain for the free agency of Kylian Mbappe this summer. Barcelona are acquiring players, although not necessarily registering them to play.
Certainly no more from Liverpool, where the deal agreed by sporting director Michael Edwards for the 2018 sale of Philippe Coutinho might well be remembered as the point the Catalan club finally lost the plot.
The Spanish bubble has now burst. It is no longer credible for Salah to pick at the thread of Liga financial pre-eminence. So where does he go? One supposes that he could replace Mbappe at PSG. After that, the exit options become harder to achieve and the potential for an exhausting and combative departure looms. A forced exit to Manchester City would be legacy-crushing.
The same goes for the other Manchester option, which one would dismiss summarily were this not a club where transfer policy could be anything by next year.
It is hard to shake the feeling that Salah is negotiating against himself, and Liverpool are happy to wait him out. The perfect footballer in the wrong era to command the auction for his services that might once have existed between two or three of the superpowers. Real, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City – all have paid big money at different times for Liverpool’s best players.
Even Arsenal upped their £40 million offer for Luis Suarez in 2013 by one whole pound.
None of Salah’s predecessors can beat his numbers but that does not guarantee a certain level of contract if it cannot generate a market.
Klopp generously suggested that Salah could continue at the highest level into his mid-thirties, but that is a hard sell to owners looking at a salary commitment that runs into what many consider football’s old age.
By the time his contract at Anfield expires he will be 31. The days of panic when a player passed the threshold of two years left on a deal are gone and clubs go into the last years of a contract without blinking.
Fenway Sports Group has been a shrewd player trader: top players signed, renewed and sold at the right times. Even Steven Gerrard was not offered that extra year he craved. Contracts are incentivised by bonuses.
There have been no impulse deals that have outlasted player usefulness, such as those signed elsewhere by the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
FSG has never had to play this chess game with a player as big as Salah, where the stakes in terms of performance, status and fan sentiment have never been higher. Yet so far: no deal.
If Salah’s demands had been as market-appropriate as he suggests, one might assume that an agreement would have been reached by now, and perhaps it will. Yet the older Salah gets, the more one feels the club in the ascendant.
The final dimension is the effect a significant raising of the salary level might have on the wider squad. If Salah has his eye on the kind of deal that Kevin De Bruyne secured at Manchester City then where might that leave
Sadio Mane, whose contract also expires in the summer of next year and to a lesser extent, Roberto Firmino? The effect of David de Gea’s 2019 contract at United that changed the expectation of United’s players stands as one such warning.
There is also the question of Klopp’s future. All this planning, the renewal of a squad, perhaps their manager too, have to be accomplished within the boundaries of what is possible.
Whatever Salah is asking for thus far has proved declinable for his employers. That says something about the market he is in. A player who could not be performing any better but appears to be running out of ways to convince his club to pay him what he wants. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2022).
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