How Mohamed Salah is primed for a second crack at the Premier League with Liverpool
Two years ago, Mohamed Salah left Chelsea. His time in the Premier League was up after just one year, most of which had been spent in reserve or on the substitutes’ bench. Few will recall the seven competitive starts he made for the club in that time. Yet fast forward to the here and now and, two years on from his exit, he's poised for another crack at the English top flight.
This time, he’ll probably hit double figures for starts. According to recent reports, Liverpool may be willing to break their transfer record fee of £35m to secure the player’s signature. Having left the Premier League with a whimper, he could soon return with a bang. For this complete change in fortunes, Salah can thank Italian football.
In recent times, Serie A has provided a nurturing home for those lost within the upper echelons of the English game. The 2016/17 campaign offered a number of individual examples of such career rebirths. Edin Dzeko, who failed to fully convince at Manchester City, found career-best form with Roma, hitting a remarkable 29 league goals. Federico Fazio, Tottenham reject, was a sound defensive team-mate to the Bosnian.
Fast, quick and speedy
Murat Yakin, the winger’s former coach at Basel in Switzerland, once said that he “could compete in a race” with Usain Bolt
Salah joined the pair in thriving in the hubbub of Italy’s capital city. Over two wonderful seasons, the winger has been rejuvenated, replacing presumably cold memories of the Stamford Bridge bench with warmer ones of the Stadio Olimpico turf. His critical spell with the Giallorossi may not have come about, however, had it not been for a brief stopover in Florence.
Initially, the man given the rather hefty title of the ‘Egyptian Messi’ left Chelsea for a half-season loan at Fiorentina. It was within that team – perhaps only further accentuated by the beautiful, slow possession game favoured by the Viola at the time – that his athleticism and purpose came to the fore, shocking rigidly organised Italian defences into a sort of pace-induced paralysis.
Murat Yakin, the winger’s former coach at Basel in Switzerland, once said that he “could compete in a race” with Usain Bolt. Hyperbole, undoubtedly, but Juventus’ defenders gained an intimate understanding of why such words were spoken when they faced up to Salah for the first time in March 2015.
That Coppa Italia semi-final first leg was just 11 minutes old when the ball fell to Salah following a failed Juve set-piece. Deep inside his own half and with two markers on his tail, however, the chances of a goal appeared remote. Yet in the space of three touches he left the aforementioned markers in his wake and accelerated beyond last defender Simone Padoin. From there, he took one more touch before firing into the roof of the net.
His buzzing movement and threatening acceleration instantly enhanced the level of danger within Roma’s attack
Having left such an impression on the reigning Italian champions’ esteemed back line, it was perhaps only a matter of time before calcio’s more illustrious outfits showed an interest. And, after six months with Fiorentina, a deal with Roma was struck that saw Salah join the club on loan with an option to make the move permanent.
He didn’t take long to adjust to his new surroundings. His buzzing movement and threatening acceleration instantly enhanced the level of danger within Roma’s attack. By contrast, Dzeko, who joined at around the same time, became a laughing stock as he compiled an array of gloriously shambolic misses.
While Dzeko struggled, Salah soared. And when the former was taken out of the line-up by head coach Luciano Spalletti in favour of a false nine-based attacking setup that saw Diego Perotti take up the role Francesco Totti once occupied, one of Serie A’s most scintillating forward lines was formed. Indeed, had Roma’s finishing been better, Real Madrid’s Champions League victory this term may not have been a historic retention – Roma missed countless chances on their way to a second-round exit to the Spanish side in the competition last season.
Roma finished 2015/16 with 83 goals to their name, the highest number in Serie A, even more than widely acclaimed offensive masters, Napoli. Salah, with 14 strikes and six assists, was integral to this achievement. Spalletti spoke highly of the player, saying: “Having worked with Salah, I can say that we could do with another four/five players like him in the squad.”
After the Egyptian’s time in Italy, Liverpool are trying to acquire a more rounded and mature version of the player they coveted previously
As has been the case so often in recent times, the Scudetto proved elusive once again for Roma in 2016/17, but for Salah there was further improvement on a personal level. Not only did he score more frequently, hitting 15 in league action, but he recorded 11 assists, the second-highest in Serie A. Seven of those set-ups were for Dzeko, with whom Salah finally formed a highly efficient partnership after a difficult maiden year together.
Had it not been for Jose Mourinho’s cunning or Chelsea’s stockpiling, or perhaps if the player himself had a different route in mind, Salah could easily have ended up plying his trade at Anfield - for a much smaller fee - back in 2014. But, after the Egyptian’s two-and-a-half years in Italian football, Liverpool are trying to acquire a more rounded and mature version of the player they coveted previously.
MORE TRANSFER STUFF
In Serie A, Salah has experienced operating as a wing-back, with an entire flank to himself. He's hugged the touchline as a winger and played more centrally as a second striker. He has been kicked and marked by some of the most gruelling and disciplined defences on the continent, and he's learned more about how and when to use his raw athletic gifts.
Stylistically, it’s hard to think of a better attacking addition for Jurgen Klopp’s system and style. Of course, with his preference for playing on the right and cutting in onto his favoured left foot, Salah’s arrival would lead to Sadio Mane switching flanks. However, the thought of the pair running directly at opposition defences from different sides is a fearsome one. Added bonus: it would also allow Philippe Coutinho to permanently take up a deeper, more central role.
Salah may not be as nuanced as Mane in his movements, nor as technically refined as Coutinho or Roberto Firmino. But his energy and speed are virtually unparalleled, and within the frenetic counter-pressing culture instituted by Klopp at Liverpool, those traits would fit right in.