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We Are Witnessing Peak Mohamed Salah

Liverpool’s Egyptian forward is entering the best-player-in-the-world chat just as his contract at Anfield is winding down. Can the Reds afford to lose him? And can they afford to keep him?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ten touches. (Have you seen them yet? Because you really should.) Ten touches for Mohamed Salah to send 10,000 volts through Anfield, pulling a Liverpool team that had been on the ropes for much of the most recent edition of English football’s current hot-button rivalry—the Houses of Pep and Klopp—into an improbable 2-1 lead. Ten glorious, gliding touches to take four, perhaps even seven defenders out of the game. Ten touches to add who knows how many tens of thousands of pounds to the proposed salary in the Egyptian talisman’s thorny contract negotiations (an impasse out of which he may yet wriggle to break open Liverpool’s wage structure). Ten jinking, joyriding touches to ascend the gilded staircase from a place among the handful of players with a claim to the Ballon d’Or as it slides beyond its 13-year Messi-Ronaldo duopoly, to being arguably—always and irresolvably arguably, since there is no metric for this, only a one-off vote flavored by parochialism, recency bias, and the category error of team success—the greatest footballer on earth. Ten touches for the apotheosis of Mo.

It was an Aristotelian goal, delivered across three acts: establishment, development, and resolution, all compressed into seven seconds, even if Salah saw it unfold at x0.25 playback speed. First came the wiry strength and nimbleness of his Houdini escape from the attentions of back-alley pickpockets João Cancelo, Phil Foden, and a lunging Bernardo Silva, the latter deceived by a left-foot roll across the top of the ball and right-foot pivot into Act 2, six close-quarters touches bringing an astonished roar from the stands, quickly and respectfully quelled for the start of the second act.

Now, with that familiar burst of acceleration, Salah was facing up Aymeric Laporte, whose body shape pleaded with the Egyptian to switch it right, onto his weaker foot, and into impossible-angle territory. After all, we know exactly what Mo should have done here: a reprise of his favored left-foot, top-corner finish, like the 2018 Puskas Award winner against Everton. Sure enough, Salah shifted it left, winding Laporte’s hips round from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., but then, in an incredible second-act plot twist, he chopped right, having created that crucial extra space for the finish. A second roar erupted from the crowd, one still rumbling into the end of Act 3, the coup de grâce. The ball bouncing slightly, the angle getting ever narrower. It was a $1,000 8-ball shot into a tight pocket, an agonizing cliffhanger.

Seven seconds and nine touches after first receiving the ball without “anything to work with,” he was ready to pull the trigger. Ederson was perfectly positioned, knees tight together, hands low. With a short, stabby backlift, Salah made the sweetest of wrong-foot connections, the ball arrowing past the City keeper—tantalizingly close but gone before Ederson’s hands could get there—and in off the far post. At which point the stadium lost its mind, the hero wheeling away insouciantly, lifting a hand to his ear then making a twisting motion with his finger, which could have referred to the tangle of sky-blue limbs left strewn in his wake or the delirium he has just visited upon Anfield. Oh my word.

This was Salah’s 134th goal for Liverpool in 212 appearances, placing him 10th on the club’s all-time list. He has scored a goal every 130 minutes, a better rate than all those above him (by comparison, Ian Rush, Liverpool’s all-time leading scorer with 346 goals, bagged one every 164 minutes). There have been 137 Premier League goal involvements since he arrived from Roma in June 2017, 27 clear of the next best over that period, Harry Kane. He has won two Premier League Golden Boots. Already an all-time Liverpool legend, the current campaign has seen the 29-year-old elevate his game even further, scoring nine in nine league matches, with three assists, all while bearing the finely chiseled torso of a man striving for the 0.1 percent marginal gains, whittling away the limitations—an occasional reluctance to finish with his right foot, an occasional Golden Boot–seeking greediness in front of goal—and dipping the arrow-head in chrome.

This season, Salah has been razor-sharp both of touch and in mind, passing unselfishly (although still going for the jugular when necessary) and working selflessly, as exemplified by the defensive cover he gave at home to Crystal Palace, helping makeshift right-back James Milner deal with Wilfried Zaha. Energized, no doubt, by the post-COVID return of fans, there was Salah scuttling back to his own box, filling in spaces, bringing cheers from the Anfield crowd almost as exuberant as for those high-octane goals. The love feels real. Doesn’t it always?

This, then, is Peak Salah, the fast-twitch emblem of the front-foot, emotion-fueled football that has driven Liverpool’s transformation under Jurgen Klopp. He is perfectly attuned not only to the hydraulics of Klopp-ball but to the city itself. It has been a symbiosis, however: Salah’s emergence as a week-in, week-out apex predator is difficult to imagine outside of the enabling environment Klopp has created, while Liverpool’s recent trophy-gathering is difficult to imagine without the big-game clutch contributions of their Egyptian King. Peak Salah is the type of full-spectrum threat a defender schooled in the dark arts might look to judo-hold out of a showpiece final, the type of player that has fans high on emotion and low on the finer points of sound economic husbandry saying, “Just pay him what he wants!” Losing Mo has become the doomsday scenario. And to think they almost didn’t sign him.

Famously, Klopp was not totally convinced that a player who had failed to make the grade at Chelsea—two goals in 18 appearances across two and a half seasons, featuring loan spells at Fiorentina and Roma—was suited to the Premier League.

The data and analytics team put together by Fenway Sports Group under the auspices of sporting director Michael Edwards begged to differ. Director of research Ian Graham with his PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge, had fed the results from Salah’s season as a fully fledged Roma player through his models (which eschew video evidence and measures the likelihood of goals before and after each action) and was sure not only that Salah was an undervalued Moneyball-style gem, but that he would also perfectly complement the game of Roberto Firmino.

Klopp eventually caved, and the rest is history (although initially John W. Henry, head of FSG, was convinced Liverpool had overpaid, so much so that Roma’s chairman, fellow Bostonian James Pallotta, offered to take him out for lunch to commiserate). Twelve months, 44 goals, and a Champions League final appearance later, Pallotta was certain his club had sold too low.

It has been £43.9 million well spent, with Salah’s second season bringing the Champions League trophy, a 97-point Premier League haul, and a share of the Golden Boot. Season three delivered that cathartic Premier League title, while last year, despite a midseason collapse that saw six straight home league defeats and a limp Champions League exit to Real Madrid, Liverpool rallied to finish third.

That April loss in Madrid was the team’s last defeat. There is a sense of old gears being found, despite a summer that left sections of the fan base somewhere between underwhelmed and irate. It’s hard to blame those various factions casting anxious and envious glances toward the big arrivals at their biggest rivals. Manchester City completed the British record signing of Jack Grealish, Chelsea splashed £97 million on an A-list striker in Romelu Lukaku, and Manchester United brought in Raphaël Varane, Jadon Sancho, and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Liverpool restricted themselves to cover at center back, the £36 million Ibrahima Konaté.

Instead, FSG focused on tying down core players, with Alisson, Fabinho, Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson, and Virgil van Dijk all signing new long-term deals. But not yet Salah (or Sadio Mané), hence the concern.

Salah is currently paid £200,000 per week, making him Liverpool’s joint-second highest earner with Thiago, behind Van Dijk at £220,000. It is difficult to penetrate the palace intrigues and parse the rumor mill, yet reports are that, with likely one major contract left in his career, Salah wants something closer to the money being paid to his game-breaking Premier League peers. According to Spotrac, Ronaldo is the league’s top earner, on £510,000 per week, followed by Kevin De Bruyne, currently pocketing twice Salah’s weekly wage. Of course, these figures are ludicrous, but the logic here is not whether you can struggle by on a meager £250,000 or £300,000 per week. We are in the psychological waters of oligarchic super-yacht upgrades, and so Salah’s representatives will doubtless point with raised eyebrows at the salaries of Sancho (£350,000), Grealish and Raheem Sterling (£300,000), or even Timo Werner (£272,000).

FSG’s wage structure has been based around the relative parity of Liverpool’s highest-performing stars, with a reluctance to break that structure or pay a premium for players 30 or older (hence the summer exit of Gini Wijnaldum). Salah will have turned 31 by the time his current deal expires in 2023, and FSG has to weigh the risk of having a mega-earning player whose game is based on explosive turns of pace entering potential decline. Which is to say: How long can peak Salah remain peak Salah, even with his physical durability and exemplary professionalism? Set against that is the possible damage to the sporting project under Klopp—the attractiveness of the club—were their star forward to depart, or even for the saga to drag on into the summer and beyond. After all, Mo Salah, Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down his contract … doesn’t really have quite the same ring to it. Salah-lah-lah-lah-lah-lah, doubling his pay at PSG.

So should FSG rip up that blueprint in recognition that Salah is a special case, the secret sauce in a Klopp team that has been punching far above its net-spend weight (the 11th biggest spenders of the current 20 top-tier sides over the last five seasons)?

There are no easy answers here, no way of navigating the tides of red-eyed sentiment. The “give him what he wants” giddiness is only intensified by those 10 transcendent touches—and the hard-headed economic calculus required to steer any franchise other than the conspicuously consuming, market-distorting petroclubs gets all the more complicated when you factor in matters of the collective fan base’s heart. On which note, lurking in the background here, strumming at the Liverpool status anxieties already frayed by the superclub splurges in Manchester and west London, is the news that another Gulf state has entered the game with the Saudis’ purchase of Newcastle United.

And then there is the long shadow cast by Klopp’s own contract situation, due to expire in summer 2024, with the German hankering after some downtime from football aft three statue-level stints across 20 years of management at Mainz, Dortmund, and Liverpool. As consistently electrifying as Salah has been, Klopp seems even more difficult to replace should a post-sabbatical resumption of the reins not be agreed upon. Which would mean that even a renewed Salah would have just one more year with Klopp.

Were Salah to be offered, say, an improved four-year deal at £300,000 per week, it would cost the club £62.4 million, a seemingly affordable figure given the expense of acquiring an equivalent goal scorer or indeed the likelihood that the club’s analytics team could unearth a similarly potent attacking weapon (albeit Mo would still fetch a hefty transfer fee, even at 30 years old). But what about the wider, less immediate costs of shattering that wage regime? Is giving him what he wants (like, anything?) the thin end of the wedge? Salah’s 10-touch masterpiece might come to be seen as the coke rush that presaged a Barcelona-style institutional meltdown, $1.6 billion debt and all.

Liverpool just broke ground on the £60 million redevelopment of the Anfield Road Stand, an immediate strain on cash flow that will nevertheless increase the capacity by 7,000 seats in time for Klopp’s possibly final season, with the bulk of those revenues ideally being diverted to the player roster. While FSG work out whether Liverpool can afford to keep Salah, the Anfield faithful will continue to wonder whether they can afford not to.

Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, Vice, ESPN, i-D, and New Statesman, among others.