“He’s quicker than I thought!” remarked Jurgen Klopp after Mohamed Salah’s eye-catching performance during Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in the Asia Trophy on Wednesday. “We said last year we need speed … we have it!”
Salah is Liverpool’s club record-signing but he is also their only high-profile addition so far this summer. Understandably then, all eyes will be on him during these preseason friendlies. The early signs have been promising, not least because of the searing pace he has shown any time he has had space to run into.
It’s clear already that Salah will make Liverpool more of a threat on the counterattack, but their chances of success this season will be boosted greatly if he can also use that speed as effectively in more confined spaces against deeper-lying opponents, much like Sadio Mane did last season.
Pace is a vital part of the modern game and it was one of the few things Liverpool were lacking last season. The Reds had their struggles in the second half of the campaign, which is why they just about held on to fourth place when, at the turn of the year, it looked as though they would be challenging for the title. When they were good, though, they were very good, and a big reason they were very good was because of the extra dimension Mane brought to the team with his raw speed over short distances. Without him, Liverpool could be ponderous and at times quite predictable.
Liverpool’s problems last season against teams who “park the bus” are well-documented, but it’s worth remembering that there were a number of occasions (particularly in the late summer and autumn months) when they swept those teams aside with ease. Mane was a big reason for that, as his quickness creates space for himself and his fellow attackers, which makes breaking down stubborn opponents far easier.
It’s not speed over long distances that counts in those games. If it were, Divock Origi would be much more of a threat than he currently is. Just being able to run fast isn’t much use when there isn’t really anywhere to run. It’s speed off the mark over the first few yards, close control and the ability to beat the first man and drag others out of position to cover that makes all the difference against a packed defence. That’s what Mane has, and Liverpool supporters will be hoping Salah has it too.
It’s a pity that Mane is still recovering from the ankle injury he sustained in the Merseyside derby in April. The prospect of him lining up in a front three that also contains fellow speedster Salah on the opposite flank is a mouth-watering one, but Liverpool fans will have to wait a little while longer to see it.
The Reds might now have the quickest wing pairing in the Premier League, although Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane would no doubt beg to differ, as might Palace duo Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure.
There was a time back in the day when the quickest players in the top flight would have an annual race to see who was the undisputed fastest man in football. Such an event would not take place now due to the risk of injury, which is a real pity as it would certainly be an interesting spectacle for supporters. Races no doubt take place on club training grounds all over the country though, and when Mane regains full fitness he’ll surely want to test himself against the new man to see who is Liverpool’s speed king.
While it’s too soon to be reading too much into it yet, it has still been interesting to note that Salah has so far operated exclusively in the right-wing spot usually occupied by Mane. Although left-footed, the Egyptian is at his most dangerous when playing on the right and cutting inside. Will he remain there when Mane returns?
Mane is so versatile that he can operate effectively all across the forward line, but he has been so impressive for Liverpool on the right it would be a shame to move him. Klopp has a lot of options now, and there will be times when he’ll probably be choosing between Mane and Salah rather than fielding them both.
The form of Mane last season would appear to put him at the top of the pecking order, but Salah is also coming off a brilliant season of his own with Roma and he looked razor sharp in Liverpool’s two most recent friendlies.
Many in England might be surprised by Salah this season as he’s regarded by a lot of casual football fans as just another player who couldn’t hack it in England. Not making the grade at Chelsea isn’t really any kind of barometer to judge a player, though; you only have to look at Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to see that.
If Salah can be as successful as those other two “Chelsea rejects,” then Liverpool will be even more dangerous than last year and should be much better equipped to deal with those troublesome bottom-half teams that come to Anfield with the sole intention of frustrating and trying to nick something from a set piece.