How AS Roma helped build Mohamed Salah into Liverpool's dream signing four years later
Better late than never, they always say. In the case of Liverpool and Mohamed Salah, it’s three-and-a-half years late, but finally, the Reds look set to get their man; even if they are paying around £23million more than originally planned.
It was January 2014 and a young Egyptian winger was the talk of the town. Salah, then 21 and playing for Swiss side FC Basel, was a man on the verge of a move to the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool had all but agreed a deal to bring him to Anfield, and were set to announce him, ready for reinforcements as they hunted a first title for 24 years.
One of his most impressive displays, and where he caught the eye, came against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the Champions League. Unfortunately for Rodgers, Mourinho was suitably impressed to steal in and lure Salah to Stamford Bridge, leaving Liverpool to miss out on their dream season in excruciating fashion.
To add insult to considerable injury, Chelsea clearly had no plan for Salah, other than to stifle a domestic rival. Just 13 Premier League appearances, two goals and a year later, he was shipped off to Fiorentina on loan as bait to sign Juan Cuadrado, whose spell, ironically was worse than Salah’s at West London.
It was no consolation to Liverpool at the time, but Salah went on to prove that his career had only stalled at Chelsea through a lack of opportunity, rather than a dip in his own form. Six months passed in Italy, and he had played three more games than in England but, most crucially, he’d scored three times as many goals. Suddenly Chelsea had a valuable player on their hands. Another loan spell followed, at Roma, before he signed permanently for the Giallorossi.
Life moves fast for Salah, and not because he can probably run 100 metres in around 10 or 11 seconds. Rome has been his home for two years now, which must seem a lifetime in comparison to his stays in Florence and London.
Having seemingly passed a medical after agreeing personal terms, he has his wish - another crack at the Premier League. For Liverpool, this deal is actually better late than on time; £34million is a lot of money, but he will arrive at Merseyside a much more rounded, experienced footballer, who fits the system even more than he did three years ago.
Both Rodgers and current Liverpool boss, Jurgen Klopp, play a distinctly high-intensity football, but Klopp’s allows for more freedom. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling made up an interchangeable front three in 2013/14, but were heavily involved centrally, overloading the areas in the middle of the pitch.
Klopp’s interpretation, when Liverpool are at full strength and their almost unstoppable best, sees them stretch the play, using the full width of the pitch, while keeping constant links with an energetic midfield three, something Rodgers couldn’t replicate while Steven Gerrard was around.
15 goals and 11 assists; Salah’s record in Serie A last season was nothing short of phenomenal, taking games by the scruff of the neck. There are no doubts that he can make the same connection with Adam Lallana or Gini Wijnaldum as he has so often with Radja Nainggolan over the past season.
Rarely do players stack up such good records with both goals and assists, but it just goes to show the development Salah’s game has been through in Italy, not just with Roma but Fiorentina too. Chelsea signed an agile, dangerous winger, while Liverpool are signing an all-round attacking wide player.
That said, his position and style are exactly why he will be such a game changer for Klopp. It became noticeable, to use the term loosely, that Liverpool began to struggle in January, the same time Sadio Mane was at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal. Rather than coincidental, this was due to the fact Mane was the only player capable of keeping Klopp’s wide shape and without him, the team became so much easier to contain because there was so little movement.
Salah, a left-sided player, offers the same trait, a constant ability to stay out wide but continue to impact the game. His presence will not only ensure Klopp’s primary tactic can be carried out without Mane, who plays predominantly on the right, but provide a symmetry to the play, offering more space to Lallana and, more likely Philippe Coutinho, who Klopp began to utilise in midfield, presumably with this very switch in mind.
Juventus’ superb surge to a sixth-straight Serie A title took the shine off Roma’s accomplishments last year, as they finished as runners-up again. It can only be argued that Salah was the team’s talisman, given that another Premier League reject, former Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, finished as top scorer in the league with 29 goals.
But now Inter coach Luciano Spalletti’s side played an expansive game at Stadio Olimpico, with Salah at its very heart, and he is definitely the perfect man for Liverpool as they return to the Champions League next season.
Mohamed Salah came to the Premier League as an exciting prospect almost four years ago, and he left with a point to prove. Italian football has transformed him into one of Europe’s most potent attacking midfielders, making him more than worth the wait for those on Merseyside.