AS Roma winger Mohamed Salah is set to become a Liverpool player after both clubs have reportedly come to a compromise on the fee needed to take Salah back to England. After sealing a top four finish with Liverpool's fifth-best points tally in the Premier League era, Jürgen Klopp's squad requires further quality and depth to build upon the progress made last season. There is also the matter of navigating a Champions League play-off to secure a group stage berth, but will Salah provide the attacking characteristics that Liverpool need?
DOB: 15/06/92 (25) | Height: 5'9" (1.75 meters)
2016-17 Season: 41 appearances
19 goals, 12 assists
Strengths: Before assessing what Mohamed Salah can bring, his impressive productivity for one of Europe's best attacking sides is worth detailing. The Egyptian international helped himself to 15 goals and 11 assists (all in open play) across 2487 minutes for the Giallorossi in Serie A last season. That's a goal or an assist every 95.65 minutes. Elite. In 2015/16, Salah produced 14 goals and six assists in 2739 league minutes at a lower but solid rate of 136.95 minutes. There is also his half-season loan spell at Fiorentina to consider. In 16 appearances (10 starts) during the 2014/15 Serie A season, a 22-year-old Salah scored six goals and laid on a further three for a goal or assist every 101.33 minutes. These numbers have been sustained over two and a half years for teams that have finished fourth, third, and second in Italy.
Hitting double figures in goals and assists for a team that finished just four points behind Juventus with 87 points and 90 league goals should attract the attention of clubs that are looking for a rare quality: goals in wide areas. The league's top scorer, Edin Džeko, benefited from seven of Salah's assists—the highest combination in the league. Only one player, free-scoring Napoli's José Callejón, registered more assists than Salah in Italy last season. Whatever happens during his time at Liverpool, the 24-year-old has earned this move by virtue of his progress and productivity in a top European league. Everything that follows should be viewed in the context that Salah is not only suitable for Jürgen Klopp's system but also has consistently performed over time from attacking support positions.
Like Sadio Mané, Joël Matip, and Georginio Wijnaldum, Salah has proven his worth in one of Europe's best leagues. Essentially, he's a more rounded fast break player from the right and in central areas. His scorching pace, attacking movement, directness, crisp left foot, and understanding of high value shooting positions all make him a serious threat on the counter. Whether he's running with the ball or chasing it, he eats space quickly and confidently. He generally makes his mind up about where he wants to go and does so—an underestimated quality when a team seeks to exploit a potentially profitable scenario in attacking transitions. Being quick without decisiveness for players that operate further forward often leads to endless frustration, but Salah offers Liverpool a tool—on and off the ball—to successfully punish teams after effective counter pressing and when teammates vacate space.
If Liverpool are to retain a system, where much attacking output comes from wide positions, with Roberto Firmino in a front three as the team's multi-functional attacking and counter pressing pivot; Salah would address two needs: goals and pace. Even with a different striker of note, such as the depressingly underappreciated Daniel Sturridge, the result should still be fruitful. Yet "the Egyptian Messi" (sincere apologies) could benefit enormously from playing with Firmino and vice versa; one should think of Luciano Spalletti's innovative use of the legendary Francesco Totti as a false nine during his first managerial spell at Roma. To describe Salah as a wide poacher would disregard the development in his game under Spalletti—a tactically flexible and intelligent coach—to become, as mentioned above, a more rounded player. He has responded well to the demands made of him at Roma to become a good short passer and willing worker in most games. He plays to his strengths and tries to work within an expansive attacking system to the benefit of his teammates.
Players like Salah that rely on pace and getting into the area often lack high-level passing ability or creativity, but he can see a pass more than he is often given credit for. He creates goals through a simple pass after he has beaten an opponent with his pace, swiftly exchanges purposeful passes in full flow, and helps retain possession with short passes. He shows awareness of where his teammates are and can pick them out to underline that he is not a limited player in the vein of Theo Walcott; Salah is far more consistent, less prone to injury, and superior tactically. Being very quick doesn't always suggest predictability, and as we've seen with Arjen Robben over the years; if a player has the ability combined with the speed, defenders can often flounder in search of answers despite knowing the next page of the story.
Another underrated trait of the best attacking African players in recent years is handling the enormous expectation that comes from playing for their respective nations. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Yaya Touré, and Sadio Mané have all faced that in recent years, and it returns twice as often compared with their European or South American counterparts. Playing for Liverpool has its own pressures, but no fan should undervalue the fervent and claustrophobic arena that qualifying and tournament football is for African stars north and south of the Sahara. There is often an external weight attached to international football that is absent elsewhere, and simply put, Salah has not fallen short.
Finally, the goals. He can shoot from distance and find sweet spots from just inside the 18-yard box, but he puts himself in positions to score easy chances, some of which he has a tendency to miss. He will follow up shots, feed off rebounds, and arrive in the area behind then ahead of unsuspecting defenders that all result from movement and anticipation. His success in this area has come almost entirely from the right and in central positions, but there is the option of playing Salah on the left. If Liverpool don't buy a senior striker this summer, fans may soon understand why.
Weaknesses: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and so, to fully appraise the qualities of Salah, his shortcomings must be duly examined. One of the problems with watching highlight videos is while they give a flavour of the player, there is much that cannot be a substitute for watching full games and following a player to some degree over a number of seasons.
Even so, compilation videos can provide an accurate picture of a player—especially in attack. That is the case with a player that the prolific Džeko is bound to miss dearly. What one will not see with Salah, however, is that he misses quite a lot of chances from good shooting zones. He gets into excellent positions, and although he's not a player with a grotesquely high volume of shots, he is busy in the penalty area. His shooting volume and positions are ideal for sustained output at a team preoccupied with playing on the front foot.
Playing as an inverted winger gives Salah many opportunities to cut inside to shoot with his dominant left foot. If a player is one-footed, though, putting in crosses from the opposite flank can be problematic. Salah is generally all left foot and avoids using his right foot with the exception of close range finishes, the odd low centre in haste, and a few flicks. Crossing isn't a particular strength from his left, but he manages to put in some crosses from the right with his stronger foot. This can lead to predictability and frustration from a player that often relies on instinct.
Liverpool lack pace in the team but are also short of guile in half spaces, tight areas, and against low defensive blocks. Salah might struggle in games where teams restrict space, but improving composure and control in midfield would help the team function more effectively and convincingly in such games. A timed run from a player as quick as Salah over a short distance—a Sturridge special—may be enough to give Liverpool a chance to score if there's a player that possesses the necessary vision and patience to release the right ball. Such criticisms of Salah shouldn't allow midfielders to abrogate their responsibilities to those further forward.
Much has been made of Salah's physical weakness and perceived lack of diligence off the ball. Serie A isn't a physically weak league played at an inordinately slow pace, and there can be erroneous preconceptions of a league from afar. Recent seasons have featured lots of goals, and seasoned watchers of Italian football will know that defenders can be rough. Salah may not be muscular but he will battle for the ball before using his pace to end any lingering physical debates. There will be situations at Liverpool where Salah will be brushed off the ball, but being physically slight shouldn't be an impediment to success as Adam Lallana has shown. Still, Salah may surprise observers with his appetite for harrying and hounding further up the pitch.
However, the Premier League is played at a pace that is a step up from other European leagues. Contests are often robust, energetic, and littered with poor defensive positioning. The physical giants naturally have their time to shine, but the cerebral, nimble, and swift will enjoy their own opportunities to do the same. 19 appearances over 18 months at Chelsea at least have given Salah an idea of what to expect on his return to English football. In his mid-twenties with just over 300 appearances at club and international level, Salah should not be overawed by a return to England.
Salah can appear to be just pace, movement, and decent finishing, but he has developed into a player fit for top teams that want to play football and attack. He probably still needs coaching to improve his decision-making and consistency, but the intelligence to absorb guidance from a trainer and implement those changes is another matter entirely. Thankfully, his time in Serie A has provided a definitive answer on Salah's capacity to grow. A player can be ready for a big move, but at the same time, there can be necessary refinements to make him more effective. Salah appears to exist in both camps, but Klopp has repeatedly extolled and demonstrated the virtues of coaching.
Those worried about participation in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) should remember that the tournament only lasts for a month. The prospect of adding a dangerous and proven attacking player to the club's ranks should take precedence over concerns of potentially missing a month in 2019 and a further one in 2021. Mané and Salah both being unavailable at the same time, though, should steer Liverpool away from buying another attacking player who could be absent in the middle of the season.
Summation: Like Son Heung-min and André Schürrle, Salah is at his best as a straight line counter threat without the sublime close control or dribbling like you'd see from players like Philippe Coutinho or Kevin De Bruyne. While Son and Schürrle differ from Salah as two-footed strikers of the ball, they share similar attributes with the Egyptian. Not many dribbles per game, solid volume shooters, auxiliary finishers or poachers rather than creators (Salah, though, has made much progress in this area), reliable double figure goalscorers with 2000+ league minutes, high penalty area involvement, and good technical skills to support their speed.
That Salah has improved under Spalletti and can still evolve under Klopp despite the season he's had should illustrate the potential within his boots and brain. The former Chelsea man can and should get better, and if he continues on this development path, there will be contented whispers that Liverpool have repeated the trick that brought Mané to Anfield.
His game might not be as smooth as Coutinho's or as complete as Firmino's, but Salah has the quality and end product to complement the Brazilian duo. The creativity of Firmino and Coutinho, among others, will benefit from Salah’s raw pace similarly provided by the mercurial and robust Mané. If opposition defences sit deep, Liverpool's midfielders will enjoy more time on the ball; improvement in game management from central areas should lead to managing these types of games better. If a defensive line pushes up, Liverpool have two goalscoring wide players to burn hastily retreating defenders on the break.
Salah could fit in on the right with Mané returning to the left where he spent most of his first season at Southampton and entire spell at Salzburg. Playing with inverted wingers, having them switch positions during the game to confuse defenders, keeping them in traditional winger roles to stay touchline wide to stretch the play, and having more pace with end product in the side should all work to Liverpool's benefit. Salah may not solve all of Liverpool's problems in attack, but this is a signing that addresses many of Liverpool's needs.