Commentators across the football world are struggling to explain the phenomenon that is Mohamed Salah, but one Liverpool team-mate reckons he knows the secret to the Egyptian’s success.
Salah was conducting an interview in the mixed zone at Anfield on Saturday evening, reflecting on his side’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth as well as his 40th goal of a remarkable campaign, when Virgil van Dijk, strolling past, interrupted.
“Lucky!” grinned the Dutchman. Salah, unperturbed, finished the interview.
Van Dijk is joking, of course. There is nothing lucky about Salah’s rise; the fortunate ones are those who get to enjoy his exploits, week in and week out.
The records continue to tumble. He’s already enjoying the most prolific debut season in Liverpool history. No Reds player has ever reached 40 goals as quickly.
He’s the only man to score in 22 different Premier League games in a season, and soon, surely, he will break the record for goals in a 38-game campaign. At Anfield, he has his eye on Ian Rush’s record of 47 goals in a single season.
His form, quite simply, is incredible. Liverpool knew they were getting a good player when they signed him, but even they could not have foreseen this kind of impact. The £36.9 million paid to Roma was a steal.
So what happened, then? How did he go from being a good player to the force of nature we see now?
Credit must go to Salah first and foremost. The Egyptian’s first experience in the Premier League at Chelsea was difficult, but he has taken his second chance with both hands. His work ethic, attitude and willingness to develop and to fit in has been noted by everyone at Anfield. He’s a popular figure at Melwood, and not just because of his scoring record. Humble, quiet and a positive presence, he has had no problem integrating with a close-knit Liverpool squad.
Vital, too, has been the role of Jurgen Klopp, who has not only been able to use Salah’s qualities but to improve them.
Klopp had first noted Salah’s talent during the summer of 2013, when his Borussia Dortmund team ran into Salah’s Basel in a pre-season friendly. Discussing the small, lightning-quick winger with his coaching staff afterwards, he was amazed.
“We didn’t know him,” Klopp would later say. “It was: ‘What the f***?!’ It was unbelievable.”
They had been close to landing him in January 2014, after a lengthy pursuit. Reds scouts performed detailed background checks, going so far as to attend a Basel training camp in the town of Davos in the Swiss Alps. There, they made notes on Salah’s mentality, attitude, the way he trained and the manner in which he interacted with team-mates, coaches and anyone else he came into contact with. The reports were overwhelmingly positive.
Their diligence would not be rewarded, however, as Liverpool were pipped to his signing by Chelsea, who were seeking a player following Juan Mata’s transfer to Manchester United. It didn’t work out for Salah at Stamford Bridge. He made just 19 appearances, and admits it was probably the wrong time (and perhaps under the wrong manager) for him to come to England.
His move to Italy, though, was a smart one, as was his decision to change his agent. Liverpool, through sporting director Michael Edwards, head of scouting Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter, continued to monitor him closely.
By the time 2017 arrived, they were convinced that he was the one, and that he was gettable. Their report, fleshed out by their Italy-based scout Paul Goldrick, was fed back to Klopp.
The message was simple: “This guy will score goals, trust us!”
Klopp, by that time, was eager to add to his attacking options. He had seen how Liverpool struggled when Sadio Mane was absent or off-colour, and he was keen to see Philippe Coutinho move back into a deeper role in midfield. He wanted speed, he wanted dynamism, he wanted goals. He needed someone who, like Mane, could both connect with and get beyond Roberto Firmino. Klopp’s faith in the Brazilian is absolute. His side, to a large extent, revolves around the No.9's brilliance.
He looked at other targets. Liverpool tried to sign Christian Pulisic from Dortmund but found the price too hefty. A pair of Julians, Draxler and Brandt, were seriously considered and continue to be tracked. Neither, though, could match Salah’s raw output.
Liverpool had seen the goals he scored at Roma, and felt he could be even better on Merseyside. The Italians played with a more orthodox No.9 than Liverpool, with Edin Dzeko leading their line, but still Salah consistently found himself in the box, in dangerous positions. His last season at the Stadio Olimpico brought 19 goals in all competitions - he should have scored more.
One of Klopp’s strengths as a manager is his willingness to trust the opinion of others and with Edwards, Fallows and Hunter all in agreement that this was THE signing to make – "They just didn't get out of our ears about him!” – he was happy to take the plunge. Keen to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2014, Liverpool allowed the deal be conducted, to a large extent, away from the media.
His signing was officially confirmed on June 22, 2017. Crucially, this gave Klopp the chance to work with the new signing for the entirety of pre-season. The benefit of this, and of the tactical work and conversations that took place last summer, have been seen throughout the campaign.
Liverpool were impressed by Salah’s physicality upon his arrival at Melwood. At Roma, he had been encouraged by Luciano Spalletti to work on his upper body, on shielding and protecting the ball in tight areas, facing the play or with back to goal. Wingers don’t get space in every game, Spalletti reasoned, they need to have variation in their game. They need to be able to operate in tight spaces too.
Salah certainly can. Witness his goals against Everton and Leicester in December, or that solo strike against Tottenham in February. “If you watch him only on TV he looks quite skinny,” Klopp says. “But he is so physically strong.”
Tactically, too, Klopp found a player willing to listen. He spoke with the player a lot during pre-season, and liked what he heard. He used trips to Hong Kong and Germany to get across his idea of how Liverpool would play with Salah in the side.
Repetitive training drills focused on getting him to play ‘inside’ rather than ‘outside’. The idea was that Liverpool’s full-backs would provide the width in the team, with Salah, Mane and Firmino free to wreak havoc infield - "organised mayhem," is how one observer puts it.
Salah was told to work on moving inside his full-back to receive the ball, either to feet or in behind. He was instructed to play close to Firmino, and encouraged to learn from the Brazilian’s superb counter-pressing and defensive positioning. Salah, to his credit, bought into the idea. Liverpool's aim is not simply to cut off angles and to close down, they have to believe they can win the ball too. Firmino, Salah and Mane are the best around at doing so.
Still, there were teething problems. Liverpool’s first league game of the season was at Watford, and Klopp spent the first half of it annoyed. Salah, he saw, was playing too high and too wide. He was making himself too easy to mark.
The message was relayed at half-time and it got through. After the break the No.11 won a penalty, converted by Firmino, and then notched his first Reds goal - a poacher's effort from a couple of yards out. The game finished 3-3.
Since then, there has been development at every turn. Salah looks a perfect fit for Klopp’s side; his confidence has soared and his performance levels have barely dipped below 'exceptional'.
His finishing, hit and miss in Italy at times, has become varied and clinical. He scores with his left foot, with his right and with his head. He can shoot from outside the box or time his arrival to finish from close range. He can run with the ball or link with his team-mates. He isn’t just Liverpool’s top scorer, he’s their most creative player too. Defenders have tried everything to stop him. They can't.
“He knows that the kind of football we play suits him,” Klopp said after Saturday’s game. A few feet away, in the Anfield mixed zone, Salah was agreeing. “The way we play it gives us more chances to score,” he told reporters. “The way we play helps us a lot to be in front of the goal all the time.”
As for the future, that looks bright. In the short term, Salah has four league games and, he hopes, three Champions League games to complete a magnificent campaign. If Liverpool are bound for glory, their Egyptian King will be the one to lead them there.
Long term, Klopp is convinced Salah will remain at Anfield. “I think, no I don’t think, I know he will be here,” he said last week.
Liverpool fans will hope their manager’s faith is not misplaced. With Salah in Red, the sky is the limit at Anfield.
And incredibly, the best could be yet to come.