By the standards he has set this season, Mohamed Salah had a quiet night on Wednesday in the Champions League. Hardly anybody else did. Liverpool was brilliant, Atlético Madrid was dreadfully ill-disciplined, and the result was a 2–0 win that could easily have been far more emphatic. Not that it really matters: Liverpool has won all four of its group games thus far, joining Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax as the first clubs to qualify for the knockout stage, while Atlético faces a scrap with Porto for second in the group.
It probably speaks well of Liverpool that it can play so well even without its best player exerting a major influence. Beyond concerns about its defending, which was curiously untested by Atlético on Wednesday, the major doubt about Liverpool’s credentials is the depth of its squad, particularly with the Africa Cup of Nations likely to rob it of Salah, Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta in January and February (although with the winter break and the FA Cup fixtures, that might mean missing as few as two league games).
And yet even in a game in which he didn’t stand out, Salah’s influence was clear. Had he not been drawing defenders as Jordan Henderson rolled the ball back, for instance, would Trent Alexander-Arnold have had so much space to measure his cross for Diogo Jota, who scored Liverpool's opener?
Less directly, the need to protect Mario Hermoso from being isolated against Salah meant Yannick Carrasco had to drop deeper, which in turn gave Alexander-Arnold greater license to get forward. His only real goal threat may have been the opportunity he drilled into Jan Oblak just after halftime, but when you’re playing as well as he has recently, your aura can shape games.
Even in the context of a remarkable career, Salah has been in extraordinary form this season. Against Manchester City and Watford, he scored stunning goals, dragging the ball back with his the sole of his boot before embarking on tight jinking dribbles. Watford had six men around him at the time, and yet even that was not enough to prevent him somehow emerging one-on-one with the keeper in his favorite position just to the right of goal before arcing a finish in at the back post. His scored twice at Manchester United as well, the second of which was a magnificently casual finish that made what was moderately difficult look absurdly easy.
In both those games, he also set up goals with glorious arcing passes. The 2017-18 season, when he scored 32 league goals, had seemed likely to be his greatest, a year in which he seemed effectively unstoppable. It’s not that he’s been anything other than excellent since, but there are layers of excellence. Yet the way this campaign has begun, it may be even better.
Those arcing passes, apparently, are something on which Salah worked over the summer. It’s fair to assume he has also worked on those drag-back dribbles. There has been no sense of resting in his laurels or merely practicing what he can already do: Salah, who will be 30 next summer, is still improving and stretching his boundaries.
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has little doubt he is the best in the world right now.
“For me, he is the best player at the moment,” Klopp said last week. “It’s incredible. His consistency is absolutely incredible, and he’s getting better. It’s how football is … the best players in the world, two, three years ago, were 33-34 … that’s the best age of a footballer. You understand the game better, you can judge the pitch better, you can see situations long before they will happen.”
That felt like a pointed comment. Salah’s contract expires in the summer of 2023 and, while he has made the right noises about wanting to retire at Liverpool, the fact he has not yet signed a new deal is clearly a major concern. The club surely wouldn’t risk letting his contract run down so he could leave for free, so the next six months are probably crucial.
Liverpool’s owner, Fenway Sports Group, has been very keen not to let expenses spiral out of control, and with wages already the second-highest in the Premier League, there is an understandable desire not to break the existing structure. Then again, with Liverpool’s resources significantly less than those of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, Liverpool cannot afford to lose a player of such ability. Klopp clearly wants the money to be found to satisfy Salah and keep him at the club.
The impact of the pandemic on football’s finances may anyway reduce Salah’s options, but the question shouldn’t just be about money. Salah is operating in a system that gets the best out of him at a club where he is loved. Can a price be put on that?
Liverpool is playing with a verve and a belief again, and Salah is vital to it.
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