Why I was wrong over Mohamed Salah, Liverpool's Egyptian king

Barney Ronay on 19 March 2018

To err is human, to forgive divine. As a coda to this: to err massively and hilariously is also human, as anyone who writes about sport can confirm. It is a common experience to find yourself wincing a little at the way things turn out in the real world, even when the way things turn out is also a source of pure sporting pleasure.

All of which is a prelude to a mea culpa. Yes: I was a Salah doubter. Or at least a nonplussed observer. My Guardian pre-season Premier League preview from last August contained the following dismissive summary of Jürgen Klopp’s transfer business: “Liverpool have bought a good left-back and spent an awful lot of money on Mohamed Salah.” Let’s just read that back. An awful. Lot of. Money. Mo Salah for £35m. Lol. Laughing weeping face emoji. Do I get paid for this stuff?

But then this is the joy and, indeed, the whole point of watching and playing sport. Whatever you say about it, that’s what it’s not. It thumbs its nose, rips up your preconceptions.

In mitigation those tossed-off thoughts were written just before the four biggest transfers of all time took place, kicked off by the financial inanity of Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain. Shortly afterwards Barcelona paid three times Salah’s fee for Ousmane Dembélé. By the end of the summer £35m was looking, if not small potatoes, then smaller potatoes. Right now it looks like one of the outstanding bargains of the last 10 years.

But then, even those who knew Salah’s game in intimate detail, who spoke excitedly of his deeds in Serie A, will surely be a bit surprised at the sheer extent of his instant, exhilarating success under Klopp, a thing to be studied and marvelled at on its own terms.

With seven games to go Salah is the player of the season. He has 28 league goals, four more than Harry Kane and seven more than Sergio Agüero, capped by those four against Watford at the weekend. He also has nine assists, surpassed only by Leroy Sané and David Silva. Only Eden Hazard, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have made more successful dribbles. Only Kane has had more shots.

A nice touch too: despite playing in a bruising, full-throttle team Salah has yet to be shown any kind of card this season. There is a truism that good footballers need to have something nasty about them. Salah is merciless in many ways. But he kills you with a smile.

The numbers are, of course, just a part of it. It was not a goal or a man-of-the-match performance that revealed the full dawning Salah-ness of Salah to this observer. It was instead the 0-0 draw with Manchester United at Anfield in October, a game dominated by José Mourinho’s defensive organisation.

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Even here Salah just stood out, the only player on the pitch able to turn and surge away through the defensive lines. He made eight dribbles in 73 minutes, more than United’s entire midfield and attack put together. More than this, he seemed a relentlessly optimistic player, football as reinterpreted by a gerbil superhero. Legs whirring, head up, chest out.

Fast forward to Watford at the weekend and Salah has begun to make parts of the game look like a mismatch, the way only the very best can. The hat-trick goal at Anfield will remain one of the images of the season, those three Watford defenders squished together in front of Salah, tottering on their heels as this miracle of balance and speed springs to his left then springs back, leaving the yellow shirts collapsing helplessly like a row of derelict tenement houses. Even the finish is a lovely detail, the ball swished past Orestis Karnezis with an impudent playground shuffle.

At which point two questions occur. How has this happened? And how long can it go on?

The first of these is a legitimate question. In just seven months Salah has scored 36 goals for Liverpool, more than for any other club he has ever played for. It is the nature of it too, those moments of out-there physical creativity, the basic joy in his football that bears passing comparison, even after a single season, to the conjoined Henry-Ronaldo-Suárez-Bergkamp-Agüero attacking godhead of the Premier League years.

With this in mind it has been easy to look at Salah’s time under Mourinho at Chelsea and see a genuine howler, a huge beaming, bouncy Egyptian stick with which to beat the master of toxic defence.

In Mourinho’s defence he did at least see enough to sign Salah in the first place. He was 21. Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar were ahead of him. He never got a proper run, playing 19 games, starting 10 of them. For those who saw Salah in the flesh at Stamford Bridge the memory lingers of trapped energy, of an eager figure haring off down the right wing while his manager lurked and barked and burped on the touchline, never quite at ease with this scuttling force of attacking will.

It seems what Salah needed was to be driven on, to be given the stage. At Roma Luciano Spalletti famously held up Salah’s contribution in one game as an example of perfect team play. Salah has said Spalletti would often sit with him after training teaching him how to defend, discussing the moral responsibilities of running and working for the team.

If Salah needed the paternal arm from Spalletti, he has clearly found another perfect fit in the speed-metal football of Klopp’s exhilarating front three. It will be fascinating from here to see how he goes about sustaining that pitch of performance.

And this is the next challenge, as even the better teams begin to make detailed plans for a player who must now demand this level of attention. Can Salah continue to produce his extraordinary, uplifting fantasy football? Only a fool – as they have in the past – would bet against him.

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