Mohamed Salah may have flopped at Chelsea but he can fly at Liverpool

Jonathan Wilson
Mohamed Salah created 22 chances for Eden Dzeko at Roma last season, seven of them scored – the second-most prolific combination in Europe’s top five leagues. Photograph: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

All across Europe are scattered forwards who did not quite make it at Chelsea, some more bafflingly than others. There is Marko Marin, signed by Olympiakos last season after four years on Chelsea’s books with only two league starts. There is Patrick Bamford, signed by Middlesbrough in January after five years at Chelsea in which he did not start a single league game. There is Juan Cuadrado, freshly signed by Juventus after three years at Chelsea where he started just three games. It would not be a complete surprise if Chelsea turned out a box room at Stamford Bridge and turned up a Florent Malouda or a John Spencer, players they had bought a while ago and forgotten about.

And now, at Liverpool, there is Mohammed Salah, signed from Roma who bought him last summer after two and a half years at Chelsea in which he started six games. Salah’s time in flux, on loan at Fiorentina and then Roma, seems not to have harmed the winger.

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On the contrary, the 25-year-old has thrived, scoring at roughly a goal every other game in Serie A over three seasons. Goals may be flowing more rapidly in Italian football than they used to be, but that is still a remarkable record for a player who tends to operate from the flank.

So what went wrong at Chelsea? Salah was signed from Basel in January 2014 for £16m. He had impressed for the Swiss club against Chelsea, scoring against them home and away in the Champions League, having played well against both Chelsea and Tottenham in the previous season’s Europa League.

Quick, direct, skilful – and yet he could barely get a game. In part, that was because of the presence of Willian and Eden Hazard and in part due to Mourinho’s occasional preference for a more defensive figure on the right to balance out Hazard on the left, which led him to pick Ramires. In that context, the question then becomes less what went wrong for Salah than why he was signed at all when Chelsea already had such established options in that area.

The arrival of Cesc Fàbregas the following summer, adding another midfield creator and freeing up Oscar to move to the right, further limited Salah’s options. It was not that he failed in the Premier League, it was that he never really got an opportunity. Once he was back playing regularly, in Italy, he became again the player he had been at Basel. It is not just the 35 goals he scored in 71 league starts for Fiorentina and Roma, it is the 20 assists and the pace and energy he brings.

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In a Jürgen Klopp side, as Daniel Sturridge, another piece of Chelsea flotsam, would attest, attacking prowess is not enough. Salah has consistently averaged around one successful tackle and between 0.5 and one interceptions per game. That might not sound a huge amount but even winning the ball back one and a half times a game high up the pitch can be hugely threatening. The issue anyway is more one of intent: Salah is prepared to lead the press, and that is vital for Liverpool’s forward players. By comparison, Sadio Mané made 0.9 tackles per 90 minutes last season and 0.3 interceptions.

Mané, of course, is key to Salah’s integration. It was not the only reason for Liverpool’s slump in the early part of the year but they were clearly a diminished team when Mané left for the Africa Cup of Nations (Salah, of course, is also likely to be involved in 2019 for Egypt). Salah, like Mané, is adept at carrying the ball with a burst of pace, and so can slot in readily enough on the right, although he has operated on the left.

Salah was never really given a chance by Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge

He is not just cover for Mané, though. Salah could play on one wing with Mané on the other, with Philippe Coutinho operating more centrally. Or it is easy to imagine Salah linking well with Divock Origi, a more orthodox centre-forward: last season he created 22 chances for Eden Dzeko, seven of them scored – the second-most prolific combination in Europe’s top five leagues (after Ousmane Dembélé to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Dortmund).

That disappointing spell at Chelsea means questions will inevitably be asked such as can Salah do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke? But against Ghana at the Cup of Nations, he did it on a humid Wednesday night in Port Gentil, inspiring Egypt to a 1-0 win on a pitch so bad that you suspect the Bet365 Stadium played better even before they had laid the turf. Frankly, if he can do it on tufted sand, Salah can do it anywhere.

If nothing else, Salah increases Klopp’s options and allows him to ease the burden on his forward line. But given his form over the past five years whenever he has had a regular game, there are plenty of reasons to think Salah will thrive on Merseyside.

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