Klopp risks adding to Liverpool's problems with Salah substitution fallout

Jurgen Klopp Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2020-21
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With the Reds in dire need of goals against Chelsea on Thursday, their manager opted to take off their top scorer with a full half hour still to play

For a brief moment, it felt like 2010 all over again. Birmingham away, in April that year, with Liverpool chasing the game. 

It was Mohamed Salah playing the part of Fernando Torres this time with Jurgen Klopp taking on the role of Rafa Benitez.

All we were missing was Steven Gerrard, bemused and bewildered, watching events unfold with a look that could turn milk sour.

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Or perhaps David Ngog, the unwanted replacement sent on to rescue a lost cause, while the angry hero simmered on the sideline. 

Who knew a substitution could cause such a stir?

The Anfield clock showed 62 minutes when Salah’s number went up on Thursday night. Liverpool were a goal down to top-four rivals Chelsea and playing poorly. Chasing the game, chasing their season. Chasing shadows, for a lot of the evening.

The Reds, hurtling towards a fifth successive home defeat for the first time in their history,  were toiling, unable to muster so much as a single effort on target during an insipid first hour. Something had to change.

Klopp reacted. He readied Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Diogo Jota, the latter preparing to make his first appearance since December 9. A roll of the dice, at a time when Liverpool needed the right number to come up.

Jurgen Klopp Mohamed Salah GFX Liverpool

It was the No.11 which appeared. Salah looked across once, then twice, his face saying everything while his lips said nothing.

‘Me? Really?!’

He barely flashed Klopp a glance as he made his way to his seat, but the shake of the head which followed said it all.

‘Seriously, me?!'

Within a couple of minutes a tweet landed from Ramy Abbas, Salah's agent. No words or emojis, just a full stop. Saying it all without saying a word. Abbas is no Mino Raiola, but he knows what he's doing. This was Team Salah, voicing their discontent for the world to see – and not for the first time this season.

As it turned out, Liverpool were as bad without their star man as they had been with him. Short on quality and low on confidence, they never looked like cancelling out Mason Mount’s fine first-half strike. They finished the game broken, beaten by a better side.

The top four looks a long way away now. They’re seventh in the Premier League, and they’ll be ninth if the teams below them win their games in hand. With 27 games played, the reigning champions are closer to the relegation zone than they are to the top of the table. Ouch.

Anfield used to be home sweet home, but nothing like that of late. Liverpool haven’t scored from open play there in more than 10 hours of football. Their last victory on home soil came against Tottenham on December 17.

 

Since then they’ve drawn with West Brom and Manchester United and lost to Brighton, Burnley, Manchester City, Everton and now Chelsea. You’d be brave to back them against Fulham on Sunday, to be honest. Plenty of fans are glad the 'home' leg of their Champions League clash with RB Leipzig has been moved to Budapest. That's how bad things have been.

“It’s not that we go for any kind of excuse in this moment,” Klopp said after this latest setback. “It will never happen that we start blaming the circumstances or whatever.

"We had a really good team on the pitch tonight, and we played good football in a lot of moments. But in decisive moments, not good enough. There's only one person or group to criticise for that, and that's me and us. That's what I told the boys.”

He was asked about Salah too, of course, offering up a somewhat unconvincing explanation for the substitution which had everyone taking.

"I'm happy when the boys look disappointed [when they are taken off],” he said. “That's not a problem. 

“I didn't see what Mo did, to be honest. I could have changed other players, that's true, but the reason for the substitution was that he looked in that moment like he felt the intensity, and I didn't want to risk him. That's all, that's the situation. 

"It’s pretty rare. I have known him a long time now, and usually Mo looks surprisingly fresh until the end. But he didn't look fresh anymore and I thought, in our situation, that's a sign. I didn't want to risk him, that's it.”

Perhaps we should take him at his word. After all, he sees the players more closely than anyone, he knows their levels and their capabilities.

Mohamed Salah Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool GFX

And Liverpool’s injury issues would make any manager fearful. Salah is one of the few players who hasn't been struck down by a hamstring or a calf or a knee or an ankle. No Liverpool player has made more than his 37 appearances in all competitions this season.

From a distance, though, it looked like a surrender. You’re 1-0 down in a game you can’t afford to lose, and you take off the Premier League’s top goalscorer?

That’s going to attract attention, especially when Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are playing as badly as they were. Salah wasn't fantastic, but he was Liverpool's likeliest route back into the game. 

Klopp can expect more questions about the Egyptian when he faces the media again on Friday ahead of the Fulham game. He knows that, and it will be interesting to see how candid he is.

There have already been suggestions of tension between manager and player following Salah’s interview with Spanish publication AS in December, where he expressed dismay at being overlooked for the captaincy when Liverpool played away to Midtjylland in the Champions League.

“Honestly, I was very disappointed,” Salah said. “But it’s the manager’s decision, so I accept it.”

Let's see if he accepts this one so readily. Liverpool have enough problems at the moment without their main man adding to them.

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