In the last one week, Mohamed Salah took several flights from Cairo to Liverpool or London, was spotted several times at airports across the UK, and finally underwent several medicals at Melwood. If we believe the hype generated by Liverpool fans’ wait for the Egyptian winger then all these things are true. For some reason, Salah was seen doing all the above and that too multiple times.
But you really can’t blame the Reds’ fans. As soon as the last season ended, they started hearing and reading rumours of hundreds of millions of pounds being provided by FSG to Jurgen Klopp to build a squad that can challenge in the Premier League as well as the Champions League. Then, just when the pragmatic ones among them had started to think about landing a handful of marquee signings, the club announced the signing of the youngster Dominic Solanke, an underwhelming announcement, especially considering that his exploits in the under-20 World Cup win for England followed the announcement, did not precede it.
To get out of this shock the Reds started dreaming of splashing £50-60 million for Virgil van Dijk – a central defender. That news buoyed them up a bit but then sent them crashing as the chase ended with Liverpool apologizing to Southampton for tapping up the player. To say that Liverpool fans’ spirits needed some lifting up, would be a spectacular understatement.
So, when on Thursday, Salah actually flew from Cairo to Liverpool, was spotted at the airport, and underwent an actual medical at Melwood, the Reds’ reactions ranged from overjoyed to relieved. They had been waiting for a transfer that would fuel their seemingly eternal belief that “this is going to be their season” for one more year. Mohamed Salah, signed for approximately £34 million on a five-year contract is believed to be one such transfer, although the fans still want some more big name transfers and need to plug some gaps in their squad.
In this post, let us try to see if this belief is just pure Liverpudlian optimism or is Salah really the player to boost Liverpool’s chances this season. Being a Red myself, I start out from the optimism but will try to find objective answers to my questions.
What is the big deal about Salah?
As soon as it became clear that Liverpool were really interested in Salah, several articles and posts popped up talking about how he is the right man for the Reds and how his was going to be the best transfer of the window. These only got multiplied when the transfer actually happened.
Most of these talk about how Salah has scored 35 goals and assisted 20 in 81 Serie A appearances across 2 seasons and a half. That is indeed a very handsome return for a winger. Statsbomb estimates that Salah’s expected goals and assists per game is 0.65 per game, which means he is expected to score a goal or provide an assist in 2/3rds of the games he plays in, which would mean 20+ goal contributions in a season. Thinking about it like that makes his price tag look like an offprice deal.
Moreover, just the threat he poses can upset defensive rhythms of teams in the Premier League. Last season for Roma, he assisted 71 shots, 11 of which turned out to be goals in Serie A. He attempted 80 shots and most of them from inside the opponent’s penalty area. To put that in perspective, in the current Liverpool attack, only Coutinho shoots more and that too primarily from outside the box. Although the Brazilian has time and again defied the odds, Salah’s shots are from more dangerous positions and his better assist rate suggests that his key passes are more valuable.
WhoScored lists passing, especially key passing, as Salah’s strength, along with finishing, long shots and through balls. Playing style wise, he likes to cut inside, provides layoffs and dribbles opponents often, likes to play shorter passes (14 m. average length in 2016-17) and is a counter-attack threat. Again, if I didn’t know better, I would read that as the description of an ideal winger for Liverpool.
To all this we add pace on either wing and ability to play in multiple positions in the attack and we know why those publications and fans are so upbeat about Salah.
But Isn’t Serie A a Slower League?
Yes, Serie A games are slower than Premier League games at times and some players coming from Italy have struggled a bit but objective stats suggest that Salah has the required attributes to cope well with the speed of the game in England. He arrives at Liverpool with more experience and better pedigree than some of the biggest names in their current attack.
Coutinho came as an undesired player from an Inter side whose meltdown was just starting at the time. Mane was signed from Southampton who have almost become a nursery for Liverpool. Firmino was signed from Hoffenheim, who were eighth in Bundesliga at that time. Salah comes to the Reds having driven Roma to a second place in Serie A. Reds can really not be blamed if they feel good about such a signing.
But remember he struggled in the Premier League with Chelsea?
First of all, even if he did, as he himself said in his first interview for Liverpool, he has matured quite a bit in the intervening time. As Statsbomb’s Ted Knutson shows in his radar charts, Salah has become more rounded with more strengths in the intervening two and a half years. In addition to his strengths of getting lots of touches in the opponents’ box, passing and open play key passes, he has added better shots with more expected goals.
Further, a comparison between Salah’s half season for Chelsea in 2013-14 and his last season with Roma shows that he was more defense-minded back then but perhaps because of that he didn’t attack with the zeal he showed in Italy. Perhaps, a clearer focus on attack, which Klopp demands might ensure that the Salah from Chelsea is never seen again in the coming seasons.
So, he is the perfect player and has no weaknesses.
No. WhoScored identifies crossing and defensive contribution as his weaknesses. More importantly, he is an African player and that means that he will most likely miss some games in January and February along with Mane. Having two African players as both their wingers could lead to some troubling times for Liverpool.
But, despite these shortcomings, one thing is clear. Mohamed Salah enhances Liverpool’s already fearsome attack and provides some much-needed depth to the Reds at the front. This alone is reason enough for Liverpool fans to rejoice and expect big things from their new signing.