Salah stays, but Liverpool must plan for life without him
The next great Liverpool team does not feature the Egyptian
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise
In the end, it wasn’t a bluff.
Liverpool had been clear throughout the last month that Mohamed Salah would not be leaving. They briefed this to every journalist who asked. Jürgen Klopp said it publicly in an exasperated tone. The message coming out of Anfield was clear: He. Will. Not. Go.
And they meant it. Some suspected that this was a negotiating tactic to demand more money from Al-Ittihad and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. I get the logic, but I always thought this was a little unlikely. Liverpool and Fenway Sports Group are very conscious of their PR image, perhaps more than any other Premier League club in the “Rich Seven”. Of course, money comes first to John W. Henry et al, so I’m sure they’d do a deal they thought made business sense. But they’d be conscious of the imminent fan meltdown that selling Salah would cause, and they’d seek to gently prep the media cycle to soften the blow. They wouldn’t loudly tell fans it’s all going to be fine while privately negotiating away the club’s biggest star.
We saw this in the 2017/18 season with Philippe Coutinho. From the moment Neymar paid Barcelona his €222 million that August (about £195m or $250m in 2017), everyone knew the Catalan club wanted Coutinho. Though they were telling the world that the deal was virtually done, Liverpool continually briefed that he’s not going under any circumstances. Liverpool told the truth and held firm. But in the run-up to the following January window, Liverpool-connected journalists changed their tone. “Liverpool want to keep their premier players”, Melissa Reddy wrote in December 2017. “They also exist in reality, and if Barca’s New Year’s resolution is to give up ridiculous add-ons to markedly improve their base offers — the highest of which was £82 million — with Coutinho again emphatically stating his desire to exit, there will be more to discuss than there was prior to 2017-18”. It was on.
So it’s notable that journalists have changed their tone around Salah since the Saudi Pro League window closed on Thursday night. “Well-documented interest in Salah remains for a potential future move”, David Ornstein said, “and there are good relations between all parties”. It doesn’t sound like Al-Ittihad will be the club targeting Salah next time, with James Benge reporting that “Al-Hilal are viewed as hot favourites to get the Egyptian international if he does move next summer”. I think moving next summer is the most likely outcome right now.
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Some have speculated that he could go in January, but that doesn’t feel right to me for a few reasons. The first is that Salah is playing in the Africa Cup of Nations that month in one of his last chances to win a trophy with Egypt. He probably cares about that competition more than the silverware he’s won at Liverpool. Plus the incentive for Al-Ittihad to get Salah right now was the Club World Cup, a tournament they’ll be playing in as hosts this December. After that, there’s no great rush. From Liverpool’s perspective, I don’t think it makes sense either. If Klopp’s side are doing very well, they’ll believe they have a shot at the league title, in which case he can’t be sold. If they’re doing okay, they’ll be “in the hunt” for the Champions League places, in which case he can’t be sold. It might only make sense if Liverpool are doing terribly by January and want to cash in straight away. But that’s obviously not the plan.
In which case, we should operate under the assumption that Salah will leave at the end of the season. Some Liverpool fans will inevitably bristle at it, but the club should be selling him in 2024. His contract will have only a year left to run, meaning the alternative is letting him walk for free. The only reason to keep Salah for the 24/25 season is if you think you have a serious shot at the league title, and I’m not convinced of that.
When Klopp signed a new contract running until the end of the 25/26 season, I assumed the plan was to rebuild for a couple of years and then seriously target the title again in his last campaign. I still think that’s what they’re going for. Since that renewal in early 2022, Liverpool have spent about £250m ($310m/€290m by today’s exchange rates) gross on primarily younger players. The only signing older than 25 is Wataru Endo, who is presumably on lower wages. Most of the money is going on building a team for tomorrow rather than today. In other words, Liverpool are building a team to compete after Salah leaves the club. In which case, getting a decent transfer fee and not having to pay an extra 12 months of his reported £18.2m-a-year ($23.2m/€21.3m) wages makes sense. Liverpool need Salah right now to get back into the Champions League, but these younger players should improve enough that, with the right additions, they can do it without him next year.
But talking about replacing Salah is easy. Doing it is something else. Salah’s sheer consistency is what makes it so hard. In the league alone, Salah has produced over 20 non-penalty goals and assists in all of his six full seasons at the club. The only other players to ever hit 20 non-penalty goals and assists six consecutive times in the Premier League are Thierry Henry and Sergio Agüero. Most great Premier League attackers had at least one season when they weren’t at it, but not Salah. He’s able to do this because he’s so rarely injured. Since arriving at Anfield, he’s missed just ten Premier League games. Three of those were due to AFCON and one was from testing positive for Covid, so he’s really only missed four of 228 league matches he could’ve appeared in. If the best ability is availability then Salah is a superstar.
Beyond his raw output, Salah’s dominance helps others to shine. Opposing defences obsess over him. He’s so clearly seen as the team’s main threat that the opposition will shift over to Liverpool’s right side in order to deal with him, creating space elsewhere. Luis Díaz has looked really bright this season in part because he keeps finding space on the left, as an opposing back four will all shift over to cover Salah. The Egyptian has what they would call “gravity” in basketball. He pulls defenders towards him, in turn creating gaps to exploit elsewhere. “In all team sports”, a certain rando called Pep Guardiola said, “the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.”1 Salah is a key component of how Liverpool do this.
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