Now that the Juan Mata deal taking him to Manchester United in exchange for a big cart-load of cash looks imminent, Chelsea have announced that they have reached an agreement with FC Basel for their left-footed winger, Mohamed Salah.
The Guardian reports that the fee is an initial GBP 12M, with bonuses potentially taking it up to GBP 16M, which isn’t entirely unreasonable for a 21-yr old winger regularly shining for his club in both the domestic league as well as the CL. He has also been no slouch for Egypt, notching up 17 goals in 27 appearances. But the best part: till the moment Chelsea went ahead with this deal, he was a dead cert to be wearing a Kop jersey. So nicking a player from right under a rival’s nose is unparalleled fun, much akin to signing Willian after he had had a medical with the Spurs. All that fun aside, was buying another attacking midfielder, like Salah, required? Would Chelsea have been better off signing St. Etienne defensive monster Kurt Zouma, or the Southampton left-back Luke Shaw, with whom they have been extensively linked, with this money plus some more?
Being touted as a Mata replacement, Salah is a massive downgrade. But then, there would be too few players who wouldn’t be. I’d consider this signing as an alternative rather than a replacement, because the skillsets the two players offer are worlds apart. Mata is a play-maker or a string-puller who orchestrates attacks and plays passes with silken and surgical precision, whereas Salah is a speed-merchant who’s touch isn’t as pretty as Mata’s. Neither are his play-making abilities.
Chelsea are no strangers to Salah as he has started each of the four matches Chelsea have played with Basel during the past 12 months. He was probably Basel’s best player over both legs of the Europa semi-final last season and he was most definitely the best player on the pitch in each of Chelsea’s group stage fixtures with the Swiss champions this year. To add to his impressive display, he even scored thrice in those games to stake his claim as Basel’s best player.
The 21-yr old left-footer mainly operates on the right wing, neither hugging the touchline like a traditional winger, nor coming inside all the time like an inverted winger. He remains fairly deep. He’s the type of player Mourinho was calling out for in his early months at the club. An inverted forward who could cut in and create as well as take chances. On the left, Chelsea have the tricky Hazard, the industrious and impressive Willian as well as the robust Schurrle, who could all cut in to their favoured right foot and shoot or cross or play a good through ball. On the right however, Mourinho only had Mata offering him that option. Mata, whose preferred position is at the heart of attacking midfield, didn’t quite dazzle in that position, leading to Willian staking a claim to the starting berth and forging an impressive run.
Defensively, Salah is a willing enough worker to appease Jose. He has shown willingness to track back and to press aggressively. However, he is not known for any aerial prowess, owing to being a modest 1.75m in height. Liverpool’s pursuit of the Egyptian also probably indicates that it’s not just Chelsea who feel he’s ready to play at the top clubs of the PL. Also, the fact that Liverpool were looking at him to replace the on-loan Chelsea winger Victor Moses tells you that Salah should be comfortably ahead of Moses in Chelsea’s depth chart.
During the ongoing season, Salah has 11 goals and 7 assists in 31 appearances this season, having clocked 2,188 minutes already. In the previous season, however, Salah played a whopping 3,260 minutes, showing his effectiveness by notching up an impressive tally of 12 goals and 13 assists in 55 appearances in all competitions. He’s probably a good-enough player for Chelsea, but is this a necessary signing? I might be wrong in considering this a luxury buy, like I felt the Willian signing was, an attempt to not let your rivals strengthen, but Willian proved me wrong by displacing Mata in the starting trio of attacking midfielders. Salah could very well be the speedy inverted winger played on the right with Schurrle or Hazard on the left, wreaking havoc amongst defences by cutting in and unleashing themselves as part of a 4-3-3 played by Mourinho.
Coming from the Swiss League, he’s a relatively untested player. The jump in the level of competition between the Swiss League and the Premier League is massive and daunting. One can only hope that it’s not too daunting for Salah and he is up to the challenge. The adaptation from a ‘lesser’ European league to a club like Chelsea could be very difficult, as we just saw with Kevin de Bruyne. But if the Salah deal turns out to be one like the KdB deal, where Chelsea end up with a huge profit, I’m all up for it. But if this is not made with a near-future resale in mind, but to genuinely bolster the ranks after the departures of Mata and de Bruyne, I’ll be worried.
The worry will not be that Salah would miserably flop in the PL or some similar unfounded concern, my worry stems from the fact there were more promising in-house talents that could have used the opening of the slot to stake their claim. Hazard Jr. and Lucas Piazon jump to mind.
The younger brother of the Belgian who is setting the PL on fire this season is already on Chelsea’s books away on loan at Zulte Waregem. It’s his second season out on loan at that club where he has established himself as arguably the best player in Belgium. The explosive winger is a lot like his elder brother, having an eye for a fancy dribble or a precise pass. Being the star player at his temporary club, Hazard Jr. is very much at a similar level to Mohamed Salah.
Another youngster who’s setting a European league afire, Lucas Piazon was loaned this season to Chelsea’s sister club, Vitesse Arnhem. Having spent the latter part of the last season out on loan at Malaga, one would have expected the handsome Brazilian to be sent on an aggressive loan by Chelsea. But Chelsea listening to their better senses, decided that at the point of his career Piazon was in, the main concern should be minutes on the pitch and not the overall quality. Since then, Piazon has been one of the finest players in the Eredevisie, leading Vitesse’s title charge. He too, like Thor, should have been given the nod ahead of Salah.
While I’m at a state of unease over this move, it’s more because of Mata to United than Salah to Chelsea. Salah’s addition should certainly inject raw pace in the line up and I’m very much waiting to see this young, tricky winger destroy full-backs. The fact that the club could have used the opened roster spot to recall a similar calibre player away on loan but chose not to leaves a bitter taste, but hopefully Salah silences all his critics like me with stellar performances like Willian did. Welcome to Chelsea, Mohamed Salah!