Mo Salah must shake off Sadio Mane’s ghost
Liverpool star Mohamed Salah looked downcast after the Reds’ defeat to Brighton. (PHOTO: Reuters/Toby Melville)
REAL MADRID bloggers are currently discussing Mo Salah’s possible position in a revamped line-up. There isn’t one. The Egyptian walks like an also-ran, a plodding symbol for Liverpool’s malaise. He is not the answer to the Spanish club’s problems.
He has his own problems on Merseyside.
Salah continues to play in the shadow of another. Sadio Mane is gone but not forgotten. The striker’s stature has grown since leaving the Reds, making him Paul McCartney to Salah’s John Lennon. The Beatles had to break up for the two musicians to recognize their creative interdependence. Salah presumably feels the same way about Mane.
Jurgen Klopp certainly thinks so. Ahead of the FA Cup defeat to Brighton, the Liverpool manager attributed Salah’s loss of form to an erratic forward line. Earlier, Mane dropped deep to get possession for Salah. But newcomer Darwin Nunez doesn’t yet, according to Klopp.
Venturing through these contradictions may be as futile as Salah’s attempts to cut through Brighton’s defence, but it raises questions. Why sign a conventional No.9 in Nunez to replace a more industrious forward? Why does Cody Gakpo play through the middle when his natural game is wide? Why load Salah with an out-of-position rookie in Gakpo and a rookie in Harvey Elliott, who also played an unknown role?
In defending Salah, Klopp drew attention – and possible criticism – a little closer to home, highlighting his questionable transfer and selection decisions of late. Maybe that’s the intention. The German likes a bit of deception, a deliberate slip of the tongue to get punters and pundits to focus on something other than Salah’s recent inability to slam a barn door with a banjo.
But Mane’s exit, Gakpo’s arrival and Elliott’s rawness do not explain Salah’s missed chances against the Seagulls. He squandered opportunities that weren’t nearly as complicated as Kaoru Mitoma’s delicate flick and volley, which made the Brighton winger look like a sous chef delicately slicing through an airy souffle. In stark contrast, Salah looked like a blue-eyed baker chopping at stale bread.
Salah scored once as Mitoma’s winner. He scored them regularly, effortlessly and as recently as last season, but his turn and finish against Manchester City in October 2022 feels so long ago. He is only 30. This is not the age. Maybe it’s the international mileage.
The African Cup final last February – against Mane’s Senegal – wounded the Egyptian. The game went to penalties. Mane scored the winning spot-kick. Salah didn’t get a chance to take one.
Two months later, he lost in World Cup qualification – again to Mane’s Senegal – in another shootout. On this occasion he managed to take a penalty kick. He missed. No guesses as to who took the decisive kick for Senegal. Mane ruined things twice for Salah. It felt like a third time leaving Liverpool. Salah hasn’t been the same player since.
He bounced back from international heartbreak and scored just eight goals from the last 25 games last season. His form did not improve this time. Seven goals in 19 English Premier League appearances – 17 in 30 in all competitions – is an uncharacteristically poor return for the winner of three Golden Boots.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane pose with the FA Cup trophy after winning the 2022 final with Liverpool. (PHOTO: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Unable to raise team due to uncertainty
But of course there’s more to Salah’s problems than two Egypt defeats and some hackneyed psychoanalysis. He also floats with Liverpool. There is a sense of a tired acrobat going through the motions before the circus leaves town. The Reds are supposedly a team in transition. In fact, they are on the verge of metamorphosis.
Liverpool are for sale at this stage to the highest bidder, or any bidder. Half a dozen new players and half a billion dollars could turn Anfield into a whole new world, but there’s little indication that either will come anytime soon. Uncertainty runs through the team like a Brighton midfielder.
Klopp’s lineup for their FA Cup defense could be seen as willfully optimistic or unconsciously defeatist, depending on your point of view, as a patchy midfield of Naby Keita, Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago Alcântara reminded Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and James Milner that the end is close
The relentless industry and boundless enthusiasm that once suggested Liverpool had their eye on extra players – or lungs – is long gone. A boardroom, dugout and locker room appear to be empty.
Salah can’t fix it on his own. He can only master his moments. For so long he was unmatched in this respect. Several moments against Manchester City, a moment against Everton, a moment against Chelsea and a moment against Watford, Salah had a knack for reaching a level of technical brilliance beyond those around him. On demand.
Maybe it’s greedy to ask for more now. A ridiculous 173 goals in 283 games have allowed Liverpool to pick up every bit of silverware in the last five years. Salah is also part of a declining team. And if teams, like societies, can only move as fast as their slowest member, then the forward’s acceleration is effectively sterilized.
The Reds rarely break on speed now. They slow down and take Salah with them. He misses Mane’s work ethic and Roberto Firmino’s ingenuity.
But Mitoma’s goal still felt like a subtle rebuke. It was a Salah kind of goal, an improvised example of flawless technique. In a crowded box, Brighton’s winger didn’t think about playing in a transition line or mourning lost team-mates. Creative spontaneity took over. He had mastered his moment. He weakened Salah by looking just like him.
Liverpool’s forlorn figure once trademarked these dramatic endings. He is now struggling to recreate them. And while the loss of Mane is a reason, it’s not an excuse, not indefinitely anyway. The last senior figure in attack must accept his seniority if the Reds are to salvage what is left of their season.
Real Madrid’s alleged interest in Salah is likely to be another example of speculation over substance, given the Spaniards’ new transfer strategy of buying youthful potential rather than aging brands such as Eden Hazard. They look to the future.
But Liverpool risk being stuck in the past, highlighting the old trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino to explain the Egyptian’s lack of goals. Even if this is partially true, how does it help? He needs energy, not empathy.
Salah can’t pick his teammates, but he really needs to pick up the pace.
Liverpool risk being stuck in the past, highlighting the old trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino to explain the Egyptian’s lack of goals. Even if this is partially true, how does it help? He needs energy, not empathy.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and written 26 books.
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