Worried About Salah Leaving? Worry No More!
Thoughts About World-Class Players at Liverpool
I want the wonderful Mo Salah to spend his peak years at Liverpool. But as I noted in my last piece, his wage demands are reasonable for the richest clubs, but not quite as easily reached by Liverpool – who can surely afford the £400,000-a-week in isolation, but it’s the knock-on effect that cripples clubs who must have a wage structure.
(Again, see how Barcelona paying Lionel Messi what he deserved meant Barca’s lesser lights all wanted, and got, more money – not to be in keeping with Messi, but to at least feel like they were playing the same sport. If you pay someone £1m per week, even the worst players want £100,000 per week.)
Anyway, after last night:
“Diogo Jota has turned into a really world-class striker” – Jürgen Klopp.
And, you know what? He has.
Jota arrived at Anfield as a goalless Portuguese international (a couple of caps) whom Wolves fans laughed out of their club as flimsy and wasteful. Neutrals also mocked, gleeful that the real man to have bought was Adama Traoré. Have you seen that guy run?
Yet Jota now has eight goals for Portugal, a Champions League hat-trick away at a top Italian side, six goals against Arsenal, two against both Manchester United and Leicester, and others against Spurs, Everton and Atletico Madrid, as well as the lower-table sides. He doesn’t take penalties, and his minutes-per-goal ratio is elite: up there with Salah’s. Like Salah, he’s also far more than a finisher, with dribbling skills that shine in tight areas.
Okay, so let’s talk Mo Salah.
World-class? Of course.
Even allowing for how ‘world-class’ can be a wishy-washy concept open to overhyping, he’s one of the best in the world, full-stop. But when he arrived he was an ex-Chelsea flop who had started to shine in the now-weaker Serie A, but no one in their right mind called him world-class. That only came during his first season at Liverpool.
Sadio Mané? World-class. African Footballer of the Year in 2019, and voted into the team of the Year in the Premier League several times, during an era when it’s become the best league in the world. I’m not keen on awards per se, as they can be biased and political (and I really don’t like the focus on the individual over the team), but like Salah, Mané has won and been placed highly in a lot of the biggest of a tiresomely long list of gala events.
But when he signed? A player from Southampton who had never reached a dozen goals in a Premier League season; a player that no other big clubs felt confident in moving for, despite scouting him. Now averages almost 20 goals a season for Liverpool, and could be 25 if he took penalties. For years he’s terrified full-backs, burning past them with pace and skill. World-class, no doubt.
As with the other Liverpool players approaching or in their 30s, how long he remains world-class is not easy to predict, but up to now, he’s been a sensational signing.
Roberto Firmino? World-class. Not as a finisher, of course (albeit his goals are handy bonuses, and he does score some beauties) but between 2017 and 2020 he led Liverpool to the Champions League and Premier League crowns, as well as two close calls, and Brazil to their only Copa in the “Neymar era” (the one time Neymar was absent).
Firmino is world-class at finding space, creating space for others, and has 94 goals and a ton of assists in 311 games, for a player whose job is often to vacate the box, not to hog it. His role is to pick just the right time to drag a defender away from goal, as Salah, Mané and Jota move into that space.
Firmino has world-class skill, world-class vision; and while he may start to slow down, world-class stamina and work-rate, too. He’s a purist’s player, but also a workhorse and a YouTube clip hero. People who don’t rate him – who think strikers must only be judged by the goals they score – don’t understand football.
When Firmino arrived, he was soon labelled a flop by the Daily Mail writer who ended up as Man United PR guru: “The committee have yet to explain how they came up with the figure of £29million to sign Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim, who finished eighth in the Bundesliga last season.”
(I read that every time I need a laugh.)
Again, it doesn’t matter if your players aren’t world-class if they make the team better. But Firmino ticks both boxes.
Virgil van Dijk? It’s easy to forget that the best centre-back in the world, up to the point where he got so badly injured by a brainless Jordan Pickford, was not someone other clubs dared gamble on. They all had doubts, as with Mané and Salah, whom they passed on, too.
Liverpool stepped up, at a time when van Dijk had just over a dozen caps for Holland by the start of 2018, which is not the kind of total for someone considered world-class, especially when playing for a mid-table team. Again, with hindsight it’s easy to say that it was a no-brainer, and maybe it was; but van Dijk improved markedly, too.
Alisson Ramses Becker? Just a season in Roma’s goal, and 20-or-so caps for Brazil. Again, not world-class figures. But soon proved to be world-class in Liverpool’s goal. (Plus, he outscored some centre-forwards last season.)
Andy Robertson? Relegation fodder, cheap-as-chips, playing for Hull City? Not even considered international-class, let alone world-class. Arrived at Liverpool and disappeared, even with Alberto Moreno at the club. And then …
Clearly world-class. Had a worrying dip earlier this season, but the mojo is back, with 200 games played in almost no time at all.
Trent Alexander-Arnold? Indisputably world-class, and a player who might define this era of football. Obviously he wasn’t bought during the Klopp reign, but he was taken from the centre of the youth team midfield (by Pep Lijnders), retooled as a right-back, and within a season had the starting jersey, and another season was a creative maniac. Again, he was talented at 16, but the coaching and the ecosystem has helped elevate him to a £100m+ player.
Fabinho? Four caps for Brazil as of 2018, but not really making their squad at the time he moved to Merseyside. Now the Premier League’s byword for defensive midfielder. World-class, no doubt.
I’d also like to add Joel Matip, but I’m not sure enough people would take me seriously. That may be their problem, but he’s been increasingly good. He arrived on a low-key free from a German club now in the 2nd tier, and his gangly awkwardness has transferred into balletic grace, with legs longer than a vaulter’s pole. (To me, he’s world-class, but I won’t push my luck here.)
The point? The point is that none of these players were world-class when signing for Liverpool, but I’ve listed no fewer than nine players who now are. (Ten, if you allow me Matip.)
Other players may not have been considered world-class (Jordan Henderson, for example) but was still an international leader. He’s been a revelation, the glue that holds the squad together.
You could add Thiago Alcantara as a world-class creative midfielder, but he’s the only one who arrived with world-class status. And yet injuries have stopped him proving his worth more than sporadically.
And so, if Mo Salah leaves, the solution could be “just another good player” who, like Jota, suddenly starts playing like Mo Salah. This may be why Liverpool could let his contract run down (enjoying the next 18 months while he’s with us), or perhaps even sold in the summer, to an overseas rival, for a ton of money to reinvest.
Personally, I hope he re-signs for the Reds on a salary that puts him as top dog, but not on twice what the next-best players are earning, which appears to be what his agent is requesting. (Again, because for every increase in what Salah gets, the rest of the players demand an extra increase, which as I showed the other day, could easily lead the wage structure into chaos. This is the key truth of wage structures: the Jenga block you must not mess with.)
The key is the ecosystem (and egosystem) at Liverpool, as I’ve discussed in my previous two books. (Perched: Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC – Champions Of Everything; and Mentality Monsters: How Jürgen Klopp Took Liverpool FC From Also-Rans To Champions of Europe.)
The way that players improve at Liverpool is no accident.
Obviously not everyone has gone up a level (Naby Keita, due to injuries, for example, has stagnated, often at the point where it finally starts to click). Not everyone can get a run in the team, with so many world-class players ahead of them. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was shining brightly before he did his ACL, and Joe Gomez improved to elite levels before he did just about everything possible to knees that now look like Victor Frankenstein had a good go at them. These guys are now squad players, and damn good ones at that, if not yet looking ready to return to 1st-team regular starts.
If you look at Salah, Mané, Firmino and Jota, then you could take what they were scoring at previous clubs and more-or-less double it with Liverpool. That’s the strength of the team, the system.
You’re not necessarily looking for someone who already has that kind of striking rate if you want to replace them; half that rate in a lesser team can be doubled at Liverpool. Salah went from 19 to 44 in one season, and from an average of 10-15 to an average of 33; Mané went from ten-or-so with Southampton to twenty-or-so with Liverpool; Firmino has a 28-goal season for the Reds; and Jota’s goals-per-game has doubled compared to his two top-tier seasons with Wolves.
(Again, Salah has all the penalties in his tally – albeit usually no more than five a season – so they could be moved to someone else.)
A few cheap fringe players have remained at the fringe, but pop up with vital goals or gutsy displays (Divock Origi, Taki Minamino, Nat Phillips), while Kostas Tsimikas and Caoimhín Kelleher look too good for the bench, but elite players stand in their way. Tsimikas looked lost last season, but a year of training, settling in and improving, has him looking like a more cultured (but less dynamic) Andy Robertson. The Greek Lad™ celebrates goals from the bench more fervently than most fans. That’s the Kloppian egosystem at play.
Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Kaide Gordon are all at different stages of development between 17 and 20, but all three are elite for their age-group (and there are several other gems waiting in the wings). Ibrahima Konaté looks a special player in the making, but was not the RBL centre-back that Bayern Munich went for. Centre-backs tend to mature at 25/26, and he’s just 22.
These, and other younger players – along with new buys – will be phased in over the next couple of years, gradually replacing the 30-somethings. It may not be a smooth process, but it’s one that has to start.
This, as I said in the summer, was always likely to be the last season for “this” team, albeit the youthful transition was already underway – but halted by injuries to Elliott and Jones. (And it’s a great team that suffered a massive Covid and injury crisis right in the middle of the three consecutive key away Premier League matches – Spurs, Leicester and Chelsea – that derailed the title charge in just a few weeks. This can happen in football, as seen with how quickly teams can exit the Champions League.)
Liverpool need the experience, nouse, and unique skills of Salah, Mané, Firmino, Matip, van Dijk, Henderson and James Milner, as well as others who will hit 30 in a couple of years (Alisson, Robertson, Fabinho); but they cannot all represent the future of Liverpool (just as the evergreen Gini Wijnaldum would represent another player in need of phasing out, if he hadn’t left last summer).
As a squad, all of them could stay; but as a team, it’s too old.
Yet to buy new players it may need some to be sold, possibly as they just inch past their best. Within two years, half may still be at the club, but half may be gone.
To end, let’s have a look at who, in just the past few years, cost other English clubs far more or who had world-class reputations, but failed to get close to what the Reds’ nine (or ten) world-class stars have achieved?
Anthony Martial, Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire, Nicolas Pépé, Jack Grealish, Romelu Lukaku (several times, it seems), Alexis Sanchez, Timo Werner, Paul Pogba, Felipe Anderson, Gylfi Sigurdsson (the less said the better), Benjamin Mendy (ditto), Tanguy Ndombélé, Granit Xhaka, Sébastien Haller, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Ben White, Alvaro Morata, Fred, Donny van de Beek, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Christian Pulisic (still promising, like Hakim Ziyech and especially Kai Havertz), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (fallen away badly) and Alexandre Lacazette (decent enough, but leaving on a free).
Right now, I don’t think you’d call any of these world-class; certainly not based on regular club displays (but some still appear great at international football).
Where possible, some of these may still come good, but most were arguably higher-profile players – or more vehemently touted – than the Reds’ names I mentioned. This latter bunch cost a lot of money, and have done less than the less-heralded now world-class players at Liverpool. They almost all cost at least £40m in 2022 money, with most well above that figure, and several around or exceeding the £100m mark. Others, like Sanchez, were on record-breaking, unity-destroying wages.
And at Barcelona and Real Madrid alone, the £100m+ flops of Eden Hazard (turned up several kilos overweight, and is no longer world-class), Philippe Coutinho (now at Aston Villa), Ousmane Dembélé (played just a third of all minutes after costing €160m and leaving on a free), and Antoine Griezmann (signed with sickeningly tacky hype, and now back at Atleti.) The game is absolutely littered with expensive superstar flops. Modern successes are team players who give their all, and fit into the system, elevating it with their ability. Ideally the price tag won’t be too much for them to carry.
Then there’s the negative impact of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United, or the once-great Gareth Bale helping Spurs on the road to mediocrity; or James Rodriguez flying out of Everton and off to the beach last season before the final game, having checked out mentally six months earlier; and again, Sanchez as top-earner but worst player at Man United. Think of the superstar cachet of Paul Pogba, and how little he has delivered, compared to his output with France.
If/when the time comes, Mo Salah will be hard to replace; but maybe not that hard. Just as it wasn’t actually the disaster many predicted when Philippe Coutinho left, and actually, the team got better. (Luis Suarez leaving was different, as that was before the Reds were operating as smartly.)
Michael Edwards continues to pass on all his knowledge to the equally canny Julian Ward, who will have the same access to the same world-class (yes, that phrase again) data and scouting analysis (and analysts), and the new players who arrive will enter a system that gets the best out of them. Perhaps things will get trickier when Klopp steps down, but that’s due to be mid-2024, and this is early 2022.
With this free article via the TTT Substack newsletter, I’d like to remind you of some paywalled content on the main TTT site, with Andrew Beasley looking at the evolution of Liverpool’s world-class full-backs, Mizgan Masani on the potential of Curtis Jones, and my take (amongst the takes of others) on the victory at Arsenal last night. Plus there’s my most recent free piece, on the misleading spending articles around Manchester City.
I’ll still be commenting regularly on TTT (I tend to do most of my footy discussion behind the paywall, with occasional brief forays onto Twitter), but I’ll get back to more regular Daily mailouts nearer the spring. See here to subscribe to The Tomkins Times.