Signing of the Summer Mo Salah Has Given Liverpool Genuine Fear Factor

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistNovember 24, 2017

Is there any stopping Mohamed Salah as Liverpool entertain his former club Chelsea on Saturday?
Is there any stopping Mohamed Salah as Liverpool entertain his former club Chelsea on Saturday?PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

As summer gave way to autumn, the focus on Liverpool's recruitment became more of a discussion of who they didn't sign as opposed to who they did. A fair barometer of the mood was the indifference bordering on scepticism that greeted Mohamed Salah's capture. 

No amount of revisionism can disguise the fact that, at £36.9 million, the most expensive signing in the history of Liverpool Football Club arrived via a side entrance. The Reds' marquee addition was a Chelsea flop.

He was greeted with the polite if unenthusiastic gratitude that so many of us will feign over the festive period upon being given an expensive but ill-fitting jumper. There has been no surreptitious scanning of the bottom of the gift bag to see if there is a receipt in there for Salah.

It has taken the Egypt international just 19 matches and 14 goals for his manager Jurgen Klopp to pronounce himself satisfied with his output for the season , per Sky Sports. For a confidence player, that's quite the fillip.

As long as Salah doesn't take to the field on Saturday against Chelsea wearing flip-flops and suggesting Liverpool play in skins, it could prove a masterstroke on the German's part. Some players thrive on pressure; others, as one suspects might be the case with Salah, require an arm around the shoulder rather than up the back.

The club's supporters have similarly been won over, to the point they are clearly smitten. Even withstanding Liverpool's defence being as bad as its attack is brilliant, there will be few Anfield regulars who will not by now have replaced the laminated photograph of Virgil van Dijk they keep under the pillow, with one of the Egyptian Messi.

Candlelight vigils for Virgil were put out just as soon as Salah caught fire.

It could all have been so different. According to Paul Joyce of The Times, Klopp needed convincing Salah was the right man to give his side greater thrust down the flanks. Apparently, Christian Pulisic, Julian Draxler and Julian Brandt were all wanted ahead of him.

Joyce wrote: "Klopp has conceded that it was Dave Fallows, head of scouting and recruitment, Barry Hunter, the chief scout, and Michael Edwards, the sporting director, whose background checks extended to spying missions at training camps as well as matches, who constantly pushed his case."

It has proved a rare shot in the arm for a transfer committee at Liverpool that is perhaps behind only The Sun in terms of things most supporters would like to see put on a bonfire.

Prior to joining Liverpool, Salah had spent the previous two-and-a-half seasons eclipsing Michelangelo's David and the Colosseum as Florence and Rome's star attractions, respectively.

In his first season at AS Roma, he was the club's Player of the Year; in the second, no player in Serie A would match his creative output of 15 goals and 11 assists in 31 matches.

His time in Italy should have put a full stop next to the briefest of Premier League sojourns. Instead, the image of a callow kid struggling on Chelsea's wing repurposed itself as a question mark whenever conversation turned to how he would fare back in England.

On BT Sport in midweek, Steven Gerrard spoke for the majoritythe honest majority, that iswhen conceding he held reservations at the time of Salah's signing.

"As a fan, I watched him at Chelsea, and it didn't really take off for him," Gerrard said (via Metro). 

"Of course he hit top form at Roma but you're thinking: 'Is he a player suited to the Premier League?'

"And when he first came, I, along with a lot of Liverpool fans, wasn't totally sure how it was going to work out."

No island is an island like the Premier League is an island. He may as well have had a stint in prison on his CV as a failed spell at Chelsea. The best way to make history of memories one would rather forget is to make new ones. That's precisely what he's done.

Few think of him now as wearing and feeling blue. The king of Egypt is today a prince of Liverpool.

He's already tried Robbie Fowler's crown on for size after his brace against Southampton last weekend took him to nine goals in his first 12 league games. That's one more than a man known as "God" on Merseyside managed in his own fledgling days in front of the Kop. 

As is the way in modern football parlance, it's been described as a "record." We'll leave it for you to think that one over. 

That's not to say bona fide records can't be broken between now and May. He is the top goalscorer in the Premier League, with his tally of nine the same as Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have managed between them. In all competitions, he has 14 goals and three assists. That's the same number of goals as Coutinho managed in the whole of last season. He was Liverpool's top goalscorer. 

Salah would need to endure a serious injury, or a drop-off in form not seen since Fernando Torres shaved his locks, not to finish the campaign as Liverpool's highest goalscorer since Luis Suarez scored 31 in his final campaign for the Reds in 2013/14.

With nominal centre-forward Firmino a perfect cog in Klopp's attacking system without being a prolific scorerthink Tostao in Brazil's 1970 FIFA World Cup-winning teamLiverpool have long since been desperate for someone to trouble the scoresheet on a weekly basis.

After the Southampton game, a buoyant Klopp gave his assessment on whether Salah can seriously trouble perennial Golden Boot contenders Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero (h/t The Independent). 

"If he continued at this rate he would finish the season on something like 70 goals, which isn't really likely," he said, before those looking for a headline better than the story, omitted the final four words of his sentence. All's fair in love and words. 

Still, he accepted Salah was in "a moment," with the 25-year-old in the type of rarefied form where anything seems possible. A run of finding the net in five of Liverpool's last seven games—scoring eight times in the processis one that will almost certainly slow some time soon.

Klopp added: "If you see Roberto [Firmino] working unbelievably hard, he's not scoring in the moment. Sadio doesn't score in the moment. But they work, and they will have their moments, and then we will talk about them. There's the guys on the bench who will have their moments. This is the Mo Salah periodno problem with that, well deserved."

When Salah sat down in Liverpool's dressing room for the first time, he must have questioned what he could add to a Fab Three comprising Coutinho, Firmino and Mane, to justify changing it to a Fab Four moniker.

It's probably a bit like when Ringo Starr joined Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison for band practice. There's no dispute Ringo's presence completed The Beatles. However, given when they split John Lennon went on to write Imagine while Starr become the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine, it's safe to say there was a definite rank and order in the group. 

Salah's no Ringo. He's the main man.

In the first few weeks of the season, despite weighing in with three goals in his first half-dozen matches, there were mumbles about him being profligate. As many chances were missed as dispatched. A footballer with pace and no end product is the sporting equivalent of a comedian with great jokes but no timing. One without the other is barely worth having.

Since then, he's demonstrated the numbers he achieved in Italy were no flash in the pan. Especially when taking into account he has scored 32 goals in 56 appearances for Egypt.

It's a bit of a cliche, but the real concern is when forwards stop getting into goalscoring positions altogether. It's better to miss than to go missing.

Considering he's a player predominantly known for being a winger, albeit one who's never got chalk on his boots, his first four goals for Liverpool are interesting to look at. All of them were scored in or around the six-yard box. Indeed, the first three of them were tap-ins that owed everything to positioning. They were all scruffy to boot—the type of goals only proper strikers can love.

His curling effort from outside the box against Southampton last weekend, so reminiscent of the type Terry McDermott used to love bending into the opposite corner, was a gentle reminder he's as gloriously talented as he is efficient.

At his current scoring rate, he would finish the campaign with 29 league goals, which would have been good enough to win the Golden Boot in six of the past 10 seasons. Since the Premier League's inception in 1992, Cristiano Ronaldo is the only non-striker to have won it, when his 31 goals in 2008 also earned him the European Golden Shoe. Bet they make quite the pair.

On Monday Night Football, pundit Jamie Carragher suggested Salah is good enough to eventually eclipse the Premier League's highest goalscoring winger, Ryan Giggs, who bagged 114 goals in 672 games for Manchester United.

Even though Giggs only broke double figures for league goals twice (17 was his best total), it all seems a little previous given the Welshman's Premier League career lasted 7,934 days. It's considerably less so when you consider over the past three seasons for club(s) and country, Salah has scored 55 goals in 111 appearances. Those are serious striker numbers.

Saturday's game at Anfield against Chelsea will invariably be billed as an opportunity for Salah to prove a point against the club that bombed him out after just 13 matches.

In truth, as has often been the case with Chelsea over the past decade or so, his issueif there is one at allwould most likely be directed towards the man who bought and sold him without ever seemingly trusting him. In fairness to Jose Mourinho, at the time in the January window of 2014/15, he had Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Willian all capable of playing the same role as the then-raw 21-year-old. He managed just six Premier League starts in the capital. 

Chelsea could have had Nostradamus as their director of football and still rationalised that selling him on to Roma at around a £5 million profit made sense, especially given a 10 per cent sell-on clause had also been negotiated. Both Klopp and Frank Lampard over the past week have noted how Salah was a kid at Chelsea and it took leaving to make him a man.

It would, therefore, be mischievous and unnecessary to point out that during his time(s) as Chelsea manager, Mourinho sold Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, having given the trio just 26 Premier League appearances between them. It's November, and the aforementioned trio have a combined 28 goals and 15 assists across domestic and European exertions.

As it stands, and winter is no time to cast a vote, Salah is the only credible alternative to De Bruyne for Player of the Year. He is a lovely footballer to watch. With a low centre of gravity so abundant among the most graceful players, he has the rare capacity to glide past opponents in the centre of the field. He can pick a pass, too, while his runs in behind are as smart as his feet.

Then there is the pace.

There are few more edifying sights in the game than observing a defence chase a forward with all the hapless befuddlement of a jockey doing likewise to a runaway horse. When he's in full flow, it only seems fair to arm opposition defenders with a lasso.

There were shades of the Brazilian Ronaldo about the way Salah ran with the ball from midway in his own half to score against Arsenal at Anfield in August. Hector Bellerin, one of the quickest defenders in the Premier League, was giving chase. At no point did he significantly narrow the distance between them. Salah running with the ball was practically as fast as Bellerin without it.

Against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium, when Liverpool were thumped 4-1, a piece of commentary on the club's official TV channel summed up Salah's chief attribute to a tee.

"Henderson has overhit that for Salah, has he? He hasn't," precursors the ball being put in the back of Spurs' net. Henderson had overhit it. Again, it was all about Salah's pace and a capacity to get to a ball he had no right to.

For the majority of the season, Salah has played to the right of an attacking triumvirate in a 4-3-3. Prior to the international break, against West Ham United, he played further infield behind Firmino and was scintillating in a free role. As in any discipline, allowing a creative freedom of expression can often yield the best, if on occasion, erratic results. At London Stadium, he was flying. 

The first goal of a brace was not dissimilar to his one against Arsenal, only this time it was Mane who ran 70 yards with the ball before slipping it to Salah for what was a relatively easy finish.

Play a high line, or no line as was the case with West Ham, and Liverpool's pace on the counter-attack will kill you. Sit deeper and the pitch becomes stretched, allowing the Reds' technical players more space to play between the lines.

If Klopp could build a defence as he does an attack, there would be no stopping Liverpool. They really are that good going forward. Whether he can get the balance right between the two is one of English football's biggest conundrums.

Whether Salah is the signing of the season so far is decidedly less so.


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