Why Mohamed Salah's success is a triumph for Liverpool’s recruitment
By Rob Mackenzie with Adam Bate
Last Updated: 07/12/17 3:03pm
Mohamed Salah goes into the Merseyside derby as the top scorer in the Premier League but his success at Liverpool was not seen as a foregone conclusion in the summer. Some pointed to his inability to make an impression during an earlier spell at Chelsea as a concern.
His subsequent performances have forced a reassessment of that opinion and reinforced why Liverpool were prepared to pay Roma a fee that could rise to £43.9m less than a year after he had been sold by Chelsea to the Italian club for a fraction of the price.
But what were the factors that they would have considered? Why were they so sure that things would be different for Salah second time around in the Premier League?
For Rob Mackenzie, formerly the head of technical scouting at Leicester City and the head of player identification at Tottenham, this is a story of a club betting on a player's motivation and mental strength as well as his physical and technical attributes.
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In fact, as Mackenzie points out, it is the lessons learnt by Everton's new manager Sam Allardyce that help to explain why Liverpool could be confident Salah would succeed…
One aspect of a player's profile that managers typically take comfort from is the level at which they have played previously. Heads of recruitment at clubs are often asked: "What is the highest level that he has played at? How does that compare to the Premier League?"
While it is not always an indicator of future success, it can assist significantly when trying to minimise risk. On the other hand, how many times has a player dropped down a level or returned to a level at which they had played previously only to fail to live up to their billing?
It is because of this that anticipating the motivation of a potential signing is of paramount importance. This is the context in which Liverpool's scouting team deserves much credit for their bravery in recommending Mohamed Salah this past summer.
To recommend a player who had been deemed a failure at a club with similar ambitions playing within the same competition will undoubtedly have raised question marks. Could he really return as a key player just one year on after leaving Chelsea permanently?
While much has been made of Salah's ability and pace on the counter attack, it is his ability to deal with that disappointment and manage the expectations that has impressed me most about his most recent career transition.
It would have been very easy for the scouts to have paid far less attention to his form in Serie A with Roma because he had struggled to make a significant impression when he was at Chelsea. Not least because transferability of performance from Italy is often challenged.
Serie A has different tactical and physical demands to the Premier League. Some successful transitions of late have been made by players who already had experience elsewhere. For example, Marcos Alonso had already been tested in the Premier League and La Liga before.
Players who have experienced different levels and styles of play can demonstrate a level of adaptability that may otherwise be unknown. In the context of Salah's profile, his previous successful experiences in both Egypt and Switzerland offered some encouragement.
His form in Italy since leaving Chelsea was excellent. When he joined Fiorentina on loan in February 2015, he made an immediate impression - missing just two of their 28 games in all competitions, scoring nine goals and providing four assists in 1,792 minutes of action.
This was particularly impressive when you consider that Salah had played just 335 minutes of football during the first half of that season for Chelsea - and 158 of them came in the League Cup against Bolton Wanderers and Shrewsbury Town.
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As a scout, you judge a player on their ability to take the opportunities when they are presented and during this first loan spell Salah offered a glimpse of his ability to put the Chelsea disappointment to one side, move on, and contribute immediately to a team.
His subsequent form at Roma was also very impressive over a period of two seasons - scoring 34 goals and providing 24 assists in 83 games. While he was still unwanted by Chelsea, he showed he could make a seamless transition into yet another big club.
This fine form, however, was still in Serie A and, typically, in games with a lower tempo. So how would Salah react back in a competition renowned for its physicality and one in which he had experienced only limited exposure previously?
While Salah had demonstrated an ability to deal with disappointment quickly, this was in a different country and away from any potential reminders of what would surely have been a frustrating experience in England. His motivation would have been hugely important.
I always remember Sam Allardyce discussing the transfer strategy that he adopted during his time at Bolton when they managed to attract the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, El-Hadji Diouf, Nicolas Anelka and others to the club.
By doing so, he put Bolton on the map and challenged many commonly-held assumptions within recruitment. There was a strategic approach underpinning how they identified and recruited big-name players who were still capable of delivering at the highest level.
Allardyce made the point that these moves were beneficial for both player and club. He emphasised how important the season in the build-up to a major tournament was for international players. Regular football at the highest level was the currency that mattered.
He offered the chance to play week in, week out with like-minded players in a quest to be selected for their national sides at the end of the season. Allardyce's Bolton were thinking smart in order to achieve a competitive advantage with recruitment at the heart of it.
The concept of enhanced motivation before a World Cup has specific relevance to Salah's move to Liverpool. When the deal was agreed in June, Egypt were well placed in qualifying but needed points against Uganda and Congo in order to reach a first World Cup in 28 years.
This would no doubt have been at the forefront of Salah's mind. He knew he needed a strong season and to be in good form. As a result, Liverpool would have realised that his motivation levels to succeed back in England would have been almost guaranteed.
Salah duly delivered for his country, scoring the winner at home to Uganda in September and both goals in the victory over Congo the following month that confirmed Egypt's qualification. Indeed, it was his 95th-minute penalty in front of 80,000 that did it.
While many would have let Salah's struggles at Chelsea dominate their thinking, Liverpool's scouting and recruitment department have undoubtedly been rewarded for their bravery in recommending Salah. He has responded with 17 goals and five assists in 22 games.
Not only has he shown that he is a great fit for the way that they play but he has demonstrated an appetite to shrug off his previous disappointments in the Premier League. His motivational levels and strength of character have been pivotal to that success.
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