Having sold Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to clubs in Saudi Arabia for a combined £52m, Liverpool may have been tempted when Al-Ittihad bid £150m for Mohamed Salah in the summer. The club rejected the offer outright, with Jürgen Klopp saying the forward is “essential to everything we do”. The manager went so far as claiming that “the answer would be no” to any bid from Saudi Arabia. It was quite the claim given the sums spent this summer, but Salah’s superb start to the season suggests his manager’s steadfast stance was correct.
The sum was vast and Salah is 31 years old with two years to run on his current deal, but Liverpool were right not to cash in on the Egyptian. For a start, the offer came too late in the window for Liverpool to secure a replacement. And, more importantly, Salah has been brilliant this season, either scoring or setting up a goal in each of Liverpool’s five league matches so far.
Salah has scored twice – in wins against Aston Villa and Bournemouth – as well as laying on four assists, a return no player in the league can better. He ranks 10th in the division for key passes (12) and top for big chances created (six). Despite the abundance of attacking players at Klopp’s disposal, Salah is undroppable when fit. Darwin Núñez, Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz are effectively fighting over the two remaining spots in the Liverpool forwardline.
Salah has always been prolific for Liverpool – he scored 32 goals in his debut campaign, winning the first of his three golden boots in the Premier League – but his focus has shifted subtly this season. Again, his creativity is nothing new – he has reached double figures for assists in four of his six full Premier League seasons at Liverpool – but his role as a facilitator rather than a finisher has been especially pronounced this season.
As age begins to catch up with him, and the range of attackers in the Liverpool squad expands, the forward is increasingly finding teammates rather than going for goal himself. When Trent Alexander-Arnold moved into midfield at the tail end of last season, Salah often sought to pull further wide to open up more space in the final third. With markers dragged out of position, Salah could use his vision to pry apart defences. It’s no wonder five of his 12 assists last season came in his last 10 league games, once Alexander-Arnold had pushed forward.
While perhaps a little more subtle this season, Alexander-Arnold is still given license to move further upfield, meaning Salah is again stationed wider than in previous seasons. Much was made of Alexander-Arnold’s move into midfield last season and how it helped the right-back maximise his creativity, but the shift has also opened up new opportunities for Salah on the right flank.
The sample size is small but, as his role on the pitch has changed, so have his statistics. So far this season Salah has made just 6.8 touches per game in the opposition’s box – his lowest in a Premier League campaign. He is as destructive as ever but he is tearing into opponents in a different way. His average of 2.5 key passes per game this season is his highest in a Premier League campaign, with his tally of 3.1 shots per game his lowest. Salah still has an eye for goal when possible but, as his focus turns to creating chances, he makes more passes and takes fewer shots.
The introduction of Dominik Szoboszlai has also affected Salah’s role. The Hungary captain, signed from RB Leipzig in the summer for £60m, operates between the midfield and attack. He is exactly the type of player Liverpool have lacked in recent seasons. His presence provides an extra threat going forward and gives Salah another teammate to pick out.
Salah has been directly involved in half of Liverpool’s 12 goals this season, so he evidently remains the team’s most important attacker, if not their most important player – “essential to everything we do” as Klopp put it. Questions can be asked about whether Gakpo or Nuñez should lead the line, or whether Jota or Díaz should start from the left, but there is no chance Salah will be dropped any time soon.
Liverpool’s decision to turn down a bid of £150m for a player in his 30s was a clear sign of Salah’s standing. His performances on the pitch are justifying that faith. If Liverpool are to challenge Manchester City for the title, they need to hold on to Salah.