“He was a kid when he came to Chelsea,” Jürgen Klopp said of Mohamed Salah after last Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Southampton, in which the Egyptian scored twice. “He’s a man now,” the German coach added.
It’s true. Salah has well and truly come of age and is currently the Premier League’s top scorer with nine goals to his name. Yet the most significant steps of his journey from Stamford Bridge to Anfield were taken over in Italy, first during his loan spell at Fiorentina and then when he was loaned and eventually sold to Roma.
Unable to work his way into Chelsea’s starting XI, with Jose Mourinho preferring Willian, Eden Hazard and Ramires, Salah became the latest youngster to spin in and straight back out of Chelsea’s revolving door, leaving with just 19 appearances and two goals to his name – fewer than he managed in four games against the Blues for his first European club Basel. While his inability to make it in London was partly due to the situation and circumstances he found himself in, Salah also knew he had to better himself and he set about improving his game. “[The stint at Chelsea] was one of the key moments of my life and my career in terms of learning,” he later explained to France Football Magazine.
Specifically, the 25-year-old has worked tirelessly on his build and is now stronger and more able to jostle with Premier League defenders. “He had a little bit less muscle at Chelsea, but his body shape is different now,” Klopp explained to reporters last weekend. “He is top fit.”
Another area in which Salah has developed has been his finishing. While he has always possessed pace, he couldn’t always wield it properly and lacked the killer touch once he did make it into the penalty area. In one 2015/16 Champions League tie against Real Madrid, for example, Salah could have had a hat-trick to his name, but he missed chance after chance. The following morning’s La Gazzetta dello Sport claimed that he was a master of “the art of messing up already-scored goals”. The newspaper went further, saying “Salah’s right foot can be used for stepping off the team bus and for little else.”
Yet he has worked and worked on his finishing over the past 18 months and the results are impressive. Even if he does still miss the odd sitter, his shot accuracy has improved in each year since he left Chelsea, currently sitting at 70%, while 22% of all his shots are now rippling the back of the net, compared to the 19% of the past two seasons. Perhaps most impressively, he even scored four times with that “useless” right foot of his last campaign, while this season he converted a tricky chance from an awkward angle against Tottenham at Wembley with his weaker foot.
Finally, the other aspect in which Salah has matured is in his maturity itself. “My personality was different at Chelsea, as I was a kid,” he explained in an interview with Liverpool’s website. “Now I’m four years older and everything is different. I have lots of experience in three clubs.” Salah also has international experience and his mental strength was on show when he stepped up to convert a 95th minute penalty last month to send Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990. With the weight of an entire nation’s expectations on his shoulders, Salah kept his cool and slotted the spot kick away. He was not a kid anymore.
Liverpool, then, are the ones who stand to benefit from Salah’s development into one of the most exciting and effective players in Europe. No longer a raw talent, Salah is now the finished article and the £34.3m they spent on him in the summer already looks like a bargain price.