Mohamed Salah must be carefully managed through Liverpool’s testing winter

Words By Jack Lusby Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 4, 2017
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Mohamed Salah has been a revelation for Liverpool four months into the campaign, but Jurgen Klopp will need to be wary of overworking the free-scoring Egyptian as his side endure a testing winter schedule. The Reds are nearly midway through a run of 13 games in just 45 days, and Salah has struck 17 times in 22 appearances in all competitions; an exceptional return on the £36.9 million paid to AS Roma in June, even in the early stages of his Anfield career. Salah is in line to enjoy his most productive term as a senior professional—having scored 19 goals in 41 appearances for Roma last season—with his current form suggesting he could surpass Luis Suarez’s 31-goal record in 2013/14. The Uruguayan played the full 90 minutes in all but four of his 37 outings that season, but this should be considered an anomaly, with Salah in need of a rest period in his first campaign without an extended mid-season break.

Born in Nagrig, of Egypt’s Gharbia Governorate, Salah began his career with Cairo outfit El Mokawloon, but in his two years in the first team in Nasr City, he did not play out a conventional season. Salah made his senior debut in 2010, aged 17, replacing Alaa Kamal to play the final 11 minutes in a 1-1 draw away to Mansoura SC. The youngster went on to make five substitute appearances in the final month of 2009/10, playing a total of 93 minutes as Mohamed Amer gave his prodigious forward a taste of senior football. The following campaign Salah rose through the ranks to become a first-team regular, but due to the Egyptian revolution, a two-week demonstration at the start of 2011 that saw Cairo described as “a war zone,” the Egyptian Premier League campaign was suspended from late-January to mid-April. Salah played 24 times during that protracted season, scoring five goals and assisting a further two as El Mokawloon finished bottom of the table.

He remained with his boyhood club for another season—scoring seven and assisting three in 15 games—but ultimately this was cut short due to the Port Said Stadium riot. A massacre led by Al-Masry supporters following their side’s 3-1 win over Al-Ahly that saw 74 killed, over 500 injured, 73 charged and 10 sentenced to death, this forced the campaign to be cancelled in mid-March. In the aftermath of the riot, FC Basel organised a friendly clash with the Egypt under-23s side, with Salah scoring twice in a 4-3 win for his national team—the Swiss were so enamoured with the winger that they negotiated a deal to sign Salah on his 20th birthday, ready for 2012/13.

A natural successor to the departing Xherdan Shaqiri, who joined Bayern Munich after 11 years in Basel, Salah took up a key role in Switzerland, making 50 appearances in a busy season that saw Bernhard Heusler’s side win the Swiss Super League, finish runners-up in the Swiss Cup and reach the semi-finals of the Europa League. He scored 10 goals and assisted 11, with his performances against Chelsea—including a goal in their 3-1 semi-final second-leg loss in Europe—catching the eye of the Blues’ technical director, Michael Emenalo. Thought it proved a gruelling campaign for Salah, he was still provided a lengthy rest as the Super League broke for winter, with over two months between competitive games as Heusler took Basel to Marbella for a warm-weather training camp and friendlies against Bayern Munich, Steaua Bucharest, Ferencvaros Budapest, Dynamo Kiev and China before returning for further warmup clashes against FC Vaduz and FC Biel-Bienne in Switzerland.

The following term saw Salah spend half a season with Basel, scoring 10 and assisting six in 29 games, before joining Chelsea in the winter transfer window, going on to notch two goals and lay on two more in 11 games in his first foray into English football. But even between his switch across Europe the winger enjoyed a near two-month break between competitive outings, joining Basel for friendlies against Feyenoord and Eintracht Braunschweig in Spain before a clash with Hamburger SV in Germany. Salah’s struggles at Chelsea have been well-documented and, given his subsequent form with Fiorentina, Roma and now Liverpool, proved to be a mere setback in a barnstorming career so far—but this season will be his biggest challenge in terms of consistency.

 

Even in Italy, when Salah established himself for the first time in one of Europe’s top-five leagues, the Egyptian benefited from the luxuries of a winter break: in 2014/15, after making the loan switch to Fiorentina, he had a two-week gap between competitive games; in 2015/16, a breakthrough season with Roma that brought 15 goals and nine assists, he was afforded a 17-day interval; and in 2016/17, despite leading Egypt to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations along with a 41-game, 19-goal, 15-assist campaign in Rome, Salah was still provided a 26-day spell out.

During Liverpool’s festive run, the longest break in games is four days, and that comes between visits to Bournemouth (December 17) and Arsenal (December 22), while after their trip to Burnley (January 2) they will still play at least a game a week until the March international break—which, no doubt, will see Salah called into Hector Cuper’s Egypt squad as they prepare for their first World Cup since 1990. Given his remarkable form since joining, the Reds run the risk of developing an over-reliance on Salah, and as Sadio Mane’s problems with fitness in the latter stages of last season proved, there is a likelihood of the 25-year-old suffering from burnout if that is the case.

Fortunately, both player and manager seem eager to approach this congested period with caution: Salah pulled out of Egypt duty for a dead-rubber outing in November in order to preserve his fitness at Melwood, while Klopp made the bold decision to rest his No. 11 for Liverpool’s 3-0 win away to Stoke City before substituting him late on in the 5-1 win at Brighton & Hove Albion. But this should be the start of a carefully managed programme, rather than a courtesy—particularly given Salah is a player who thrives due to his pace, which depends on his fitness. Speaking after his side’s victory at the bet365 Stadium, Klopp said “I’m really pleased that today people will say it was a good idea to leave Mo Salah out and bring him in for only 15 minutes and he scored twice,” and this is due to the increased options at his disposal.

With the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Dominic Solanke and Daniel Sturridge, Klopp is capable of rotating his key forwards during a hugely demanding stretch of fixtures, with not only Mane and Salah but also Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino requiring rest in order to maintain their fitness. Liverpool suffered without Mane last season, with his absence through injury and at the Africa Cup of Nations derailing a convincing title bid, and this time out Klopp cannot, and should not, oversee a similar collapse by overburdening Salah in his first season without a defined rest.

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