After Mohamed Salah scored against his old club, Peter Smith looks at how the Egyptian has matured since his Chelsea days into one of the league’s top forwards at Liverpool…
There was something of an inevitability about Mohamed Salah’s goal against Chelsea on Saturday. In form, with a point to prove against his former employers and having a history of scoring against the Londoners, it was no surprise to see the Liverpool forward find the net.
But, as with Salah’s style of play, knowing what he’s about to do and finding a way to prevent it from happening are two very different things.
The Egyptian is transformed from the raw 21-year-old who Chelsea signed from Basel for £11m in 2014.
Salah’s apps and goals – all comps
Club Apps Goals Basel 79 20 Chelsea 19 2 Fiorentina 26 9 Roma 83 34 Liverpool 20 15
Back then, he was billed as a replacement for Juan Mata by former Blues boss Jose Mourinho but the leap from the Swiss league to England’s top flight came too soon in his development, while too many talented team-mates stood in his way of first-team chances.
His subsequent years in Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma have seen him improve physically, tactically and technically. The 25-year-old Salah signed by Liverpool – surely the signing of the summer – is now a first-class forward. And he’s showing his doubters what he can do.
Watch Salah score and more highlights from Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
Salah has 10 goals in his first 13 Premier League games for Liverpool, the joint best return by any new Reds player alongside another Chelsea old boy, Daniel Sturridge. His 15 goals from 20 appearances across all competitions this season puts him up among the most prolific strikers across Europe.
From fast breaks and shots from the edge of the box, to his cool finish when put through one-on-one, Salah showed against Chelsea just why he’s such a difficult man to contain these days.
His pace is electric. Liverpool’s lighting counter-attacks against West Ham and Arsenal this season have highlighted his speed and against Chelsea he regularly left his markers trailing, especially late on as the Blues pushed for a leveller.
Salah has scored four times in five appearances against Chelsea – including goals in the Europa League and Champions League for Basel
But it’s not just about the counter-attack. Salah’s speed changes the way opposition teams organise themselves against Liverpool. Chelsea were notable, particularly in the first half, for their deep defence, cautious not to get caught out by Salah’s runs in behind, while Danny Drinkwater’s selection ahead of Cesc Fabregas was a conservative move.
“There can be no other reaction,” Jurgen Klopp explained after Southampton employed a similar deep-lying approach at Anfield the week before. “It’s about stretching the formation and creating space for the rest [to play].”
Salah’s quick feet are an asset at close quarters, too. He danced away from the double marking of N’Golo Kante and Timeoue Bakayoko in one memorable moment of skill on Saturday and only five Premier League players have beaten more players with the dribble than he has this season.
But defenders aren’t safe when they have him pinned with his back to goal, either. Gary Cahill – a man who knows him well from the training ground at Cobham – had Salah in that position on the edge of the box just before half-time, but with a drop of the shoulder and a shuffle to his left, Salah had turned, made himself half a yard of space and whipped a shot just past Thibaut Courtois’ post.
It was close to replicating his stunning strike against Southampton but typically Salah picks his moment to shoot when he’s closer to goal – just 10 of his 49 efforts have come from outside the area.
He has scored nine goals from 39 shots in the box this season. While that conversion rate should be better, with Salah spurning six clear-cut opportunities according to Opta (only Romelu Lukaku has missed more), his almost one in four success ratio has proved important for Liverpool. Klopp’s side would be five points worse off without Salah’s goals – and out of the top four picture.
Jamie Carragher praises Salah after his double against Southampton
His goal against Chelsea was coolly converted, with Salah slotting low past Courtois when put through one-on-one. It was his fourth goal in five appearances against Chelsea, having already found the net in a leg of the 2013 Europa League semi-finals and two Champions League group games the following season while he was at Basel.
That pressure, that responsibility is something Salah now relishes. Just last week Philippe Coutinho praised his desire to find space to receive the ball. From the young starlet finding his feet at Chelsea, he is now a confident performer, eager to regularly make the difference on the big stage. His calmly converted 95th-minute penalty to send Egypt to the World Cup last month summed up his ability to deliver when the stakes are high.
Salah is a very quick player and he’s always trying to move so that he can get into empty space and that makes it easier for whoever has the ball.
Philippe Coutinho on Mo Salah
In the Premier League, too, he’s come to the fore in the big moments. At home to Manchester United and Chelsea, when Liverpool’s visitors have dropped deep to frustrate, the Reds have looked to Salah. His game-high number of dribbles (eight) against United and game-high number of shots (seven) against Chelsea highlight his desire to get on the ball and influence the outcome.
Salah has matured into one of the most exciting, high-class players in the country. That was far from inevitable during his Chelsea days, but now, with Liverpool, Salah’s success seems assured.