Mohamed Salah is showing the folly of Jose Mourinho’s decision to allow him to leave Chelsea

Mohamed Salah is showing the folly of Jose Mourinho’s decision to allow him to leave Chelsea
Mohamed Salah has scored 28 Premier League goals for Liverpool in a remarkable first season at Anfield. (Reuters)
Updated 23 March 2018

Mohamed Salah is showing the folly of Jose Mourinho’s decision to allow him to leave Chelsea

Mohamed Salah is showing the folly of Jose Mourinho’s decision to allow him to leave Chelsea

LONDON: There must be times when Jose Mourinho feels everything is conspiring against him. As if it weren’t bad enough that his Manchester United are playing grouchy, tempo-less football and that their position in second place in the league seems to be regarded by many as an inexplicable freak. But added is the fact that the sides immediately above and below him in the table are led by players he let go.
Whatever the specifics of the departures of Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah from Chelsea, their success must feel like an ongoing rebuke: Mourinho is being undone by players he either did not rate or did not have the political fight to keep.
Perhaps De Bruyne was never Mourinho’s type of player — too keen to play the extra pass, too keen to elaborate, not just to do the simple thing. Salah, however, quick, direct and capable, it turns out, of scoring hatfuls of goals, is just Mourinho’s sort of player. But perhaps that is unfair. For one thing, Salah was competing for a place with Willian and Eden Hazard and then, when Cesc Fabregas arrived, with Oscar, who moved out to the flank. And there was nothing in his career at that point, or even subsequently at Fiorentina or Roma, to suggest the player he would become.
Salah scored goals — 35 in 71 Serie A starts as well as 20 assists — but at nothing like the rate he has this season: 28 goals and nine assists in 28 starts. These are otherworldly, epochal figures and would seem even more extraordinary if he didn’t play in an era in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had redefined the parameters of the reasonable.
The Messi comparison, in particular, keeps being made, which is perhaps a little unfair. He is not Messi, nowhere near him, but then no one is. It is enough, surely, to be one of the greatest of the mortals, a player who will go head-to-head with De Bruyne for the player of the year awards (a prediction: De Bruyne will win Players’ Player of the Year because it is voted for so early in the season and De Bruyne was at his peak in the key period of late autumn and early winter; Salah has a better chance in the Footballer Writers’ Player of the Year, even though that award tends to go to a player from the side that has won the title).
The reason for the shift is a change of role. Jurgen Klopp must take credit for that, but he admits that there was no great plan to convert Salah when he was signed. “He (Salah) played more on the wing in Rome where he had a very dominant striker in (Edin) Dzeko,” he said last week. “Nobody could know (that he could play as a goalscorer). We learnt it step by step. Without consistency, we couldn’t know for certain, but in the pre-season, we knew.”
The key to Salah is Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian has scored 14 goals and registered seven assists this season, but his greatest asset may be his capacity to get out of the way. He is one of those rare players who seems to revel in being the facilitator of a goal rather than the executor, constantly dropping deep and pulling defenders out of the way to create space for Salah.
And as Sir Alex Ferguson observed, taking about Wayne Rooney’s change of role in 2008-09 when he played wide in a fluid front three with Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo, attacking on the diagonal gives a forward an advantage anyway. In part it is about an inverted wide man cutting in onto his stronger foot against the weaker foot of the full-back, but it is also about simple geometry.
On a crowded pitch, the most valuable resource is space in the attacking third: If a player is running on a diagonal, attacking on the hypotenuse, he has created a little more acceleration room than there would be attacking in a straight line.
Why then, if there is such an advantage in attacking from wide, do so few teams do it? The difficulty is not just finding a player who can do what Salah can do, but also finding one to play with him who is willing and able to perform Firmino’s role.