The making of Mohamed Salah: “At no stage did I believe I didn’t belong at this level. Absolutely not”
Suffering the Blues
But if Salah thought it would prove a springboard to success, he was mistaken. Before that League Cup tie against Shrewsbury in October 2014, he had played just 18 minutes of Premier League football. It was little wonder that, despite teeing up the 48th-minute opening goal for Didier Drogba, the Egyptian struggled to find any rhythm and skewed that earlier shot horribly wide.
“I expect people who aren’t playing a lot to raise the level to create problems,” said a merciless Mourinho at full-time, clearly irked that his second-string had laboured to a 2-1 win in Shropshire. “It’s too easy to choose my team for Saturday.”
When pushed if he meant Salah and Andre Schurrle specifically, the Portuguese simply shrugged: “Yeah.”
Aside from a Champions League dead rubber against Sporting and FA Cup loss to Bradford City, it was Salah’s final Chelsea start.
“He didn’t get a chance at Chelsea – maybe because of the manager or the other players? I don’t know,” Eden Hazard said earlier this year. “In that period I remember we had me, Willian and Oscar, so for him it wasn't easy. But he’s a top player, for sure. In training we'd do everything. Even in the games sometimes he would score goals, so we knew the quality he had.”
In January 2015, after a year at Stamford Bridge, Salah departed for Fiorentina on loan, seemingly destined to be another Romelu Lukaku or Kevin De Bruyne – talented, technical players, discarded too quickly.
“We talked at Chelsea when I first came back from the loan spell at Fiorentina,” says Salah of Mourinho. “We also spoke after the match against Manchester United this season and have a good relationship. We didn’t talk much, but it was OK.”
Did he say why you didn’t play much under him at Chelsea? “No,” he immediately retorts, his eyes never deviating from FFT for an instant. “We didn’t talk about that.”
Idolised in Italy
Serie A proved the making of Salah. Still to fill out fully, the wideman bulked up in anticipation of Italian football’s heavy-duty defending – and the results were striking.
“It was very important to get back playing football,” says Salah. “It was a good feeling to play regularly again. I felt I did pretty well in that loan spell and enjoyed my time on the field. At no stage did I believe I didn’t belong at this level. Absolutely not.”
Salah scored nine goals in 26 appearances in all competitions for the Viola, none better than the solo run from inside his own half during the 2015 Coppa Italia semi-final first leg against Juventus. This was pure Salah: searing speed allied with close control and a calm finish after trusting his instinct to break. It was, enthused sporting director Daniele Prade, “a crazy goal... the kind of thing you do when you’re a kid.”
Gazzetta dello Sport was even more effusive in its praise. “Sim Salah bis,” yelled the front cover – the catchphrase of turbaned character Hadji in the ’60s American cartoon Jonny Quest, which means ‘abracadabra’. Magic, indeed.
“We knew what his attributes were, but frankly we didn’t realise he could be so decisive,” said coach Vincenzo Montella. “We knew he was one of the fastest players with the ball at his feet – perhaps only Lionel Messi is faster.”
Such speed seduced Roma boss Luciano Spalletti. Signed initially on loan in the summer of 2015, then permanently 12 months later, Salah excelled for the Giallorossi, scoring 29 goals in 65 Serie A encounters across two seasons. He also chipped in with 17 assists. In 2015/16 he was voted Roma’s player of the season and even pegged as a 10-second 100-metre runner, based on a 70m sprint against former club Fiorentina last term. “Who can catch him?” Spalletti wondered aloud as the 2016/17 campaign came to a close. “You’d need a motorbike.”
Roma’s verve reflected Salah’s own. In both of the Egyptian’s seasons at the Stadio Olimpico, the Giallorossi were among Serie A’s leading scorers. Spalletti’s high press, ruthless counter-attacking and tactical flexibility were an exhilarating antidote to Juventus’s dour domination.
“Every team I’ve played for has attacked, so it wasn’t really that strange,” explains Salah, scratching his immaculately groomed designer stubble. “Spalletti helped me improve both tactically and defensively. He would regularly stay behind after training to speak to me about these things.”
There's a warmth to what Salah recalls about the lengths to which Spalletti went to help him. The subtext isn’t difficult to spot.
A player evolving
The speedster’s stellar improvement hadn't gone unnoticed on Merseyside. Many baulked at the club-record fee, but only those unaware of the rapidly maturing 25-year-old’s Italian form.
The man himself couldn’t wait to get started. “I've loved the club since I was young and knew this was a team I wanted to play for,” admits Salah, shaking his head in disbelief, even six months into a burgeoning Anfield career, that he’s a Liverpool player. He can’t sit still in recalling the early moments to FFT. “I knew the history that this club has and, as soon as I got the chance, I had to make it happen.”
Jurgen Klopp, having had Salah on his radar for six months, has been instrumental to Salah’s development. After the deal was done in late June last year, the forward had a full pre-season to adapt to the up-tempo style. Klopp admitted after an early friendly at Wigan that Salah “had absolutely no idea how we defend” because he had only trained twice with his new team.
“The boss has given me the chance to improve and show the world my football – that made up my mind to come here,” says Salah. “Is he the same every day as he is on the touchline? Yeah, definitely.
“He always wants to do his best for the team, to make everyone smile and be happy, which means every player wants to give 100 per cent for him. That’s what he gives us. He’s always so motivated and wants to help each player in his squad improve.”
Further motivation came from a lingering sense of unfinished Premier League business. “Three years ago I didn’t play much, but since day one back in England I wanted to show what I can do. I think I’m doing well.”
The Reds’ No.11 says this with a knowing tone, the hint of a smile forming in the corner of his mouth. However, he is quick to point out his fuel is not to prove anyone wrong.
“I don’t want to show anyone anything,” he says. “I went to Fiorentina and went to Roma, and did very well. I came here to be at a top club and to enjoy myself – that was my thinking. Nothing else.”
Salah has certainly been enjoying himself. The beaming smile, which accompanied each pose in front of the FFT cameras, is proof of that. “Manchester City are worried,” our remarkably prescient snapper had said during the Egyptian’s shoot to elicit an even wider grin.
Watch back any Liverpool match this season and two things strike you. First, Salah demands the ball constantly. Whenever the Liverpool midfield or defence have possession, he'll check his shoulder, turn the palm of his hand to face the sky and point his fingers down to his feet. Give. Me. The. Ball.
Second, and even more important, is Salah's economy of movement. He rarely moves more than he needs to, whether in defence or attack. Learned from those early El Mokawloon days at left-back, he remains fresh throughout 90 minutes to seize his moment to decide a match. So efficient are Salah's movements, he is the sole Liverpool attacker whom Klopp does not rotate. “He gets angry at me when I take him off after 65 minutes or so,” the German gaffer has admitted. “That is the mentality you need.”
An instinctive relationship has flourished with his partners in crime, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. The trio have scored 88 of the Reds’ 128 goals this season in all competitions.
“They’re both top players, but so are [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain, [Jordan] Henderson and everyone who plays near my position,” says Salah, sketching lines in the air. “We know each other so well because of the training every day, so when it comes to a match they make it easy for me. Actually, we all make it easy for each other. We’re all very happy together, want to improve and have the best season we can.”
This has comfortably been Salah’s best ever campaign as a professional. Before 2017/18, he'd never scored more than 20 goals in a season – a figure he reached by December. And the sheer variety of goals he has scored has been breathtaking.