Finding the next Mohamed Salah – Tactical Analysis

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Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the poster boys of a modern day football front three and all that can be accomplished, are all out of contract at the end of the 2022-23 season. The electric trio defined Liverpool’s success in the late 2010s, including a Premier League and UEFA Champions League triumph, and a runners-up medal in both competitions. But now approaching or already hitting 30 years old, Liverpool need to start to prepare for life without their illustrious front three. So with that, in this tactical transfer series, we attempt to identify the next Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. We’re looking for players not only capable of leading the Reds to more title triumphs, but players young enough to do so over the next five years. Today, we find the next Mohamed Salah.

CRITERIA

Before delving into the realm of potential replacements for three modern greats, we first must come to a deeper understanding of Liverpool’s style of play. Assuming Jurgen Klopp stays at the helm of Liverpool, you can expect principles like high-pressing, high-tempo passing, intellectual build-up, positional play, and “heavy-metal football” to remain in-tact. As a result, the players they bring in need to fit this style. They need to be capable pressers, and already have built-in experience playing for a side that favours pressing high over sitting deep. They need to be capable on the ball and intelligent with their movement, capable of playing in a similar vein to Liverpool’s current front-three. That includes wingers pacing up the field at great speed ahead of the striker. The Salah and Mane replacements need to be more than just out-and-out sideline huggers, but capable of playing on both feet, drifting and cutting inside, and taking up inverted positions high up the field. Finally, the speed of play in everything they do needs to be high. Heavy-metal football is taxing and trying, so durability in the form of a low injury record will be key, in addition to all other metrics of athleticism such as speed, acceleration and physicality.

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It’s worth noting that we’re also trying to replace players approaching their thirties, in the quest to identify long-term replacements capable of still reaching their very best, similar to what Liverpool accomplished when they signed each of the Liverpool trio in the first place. As a result, we’re only looking at players under the age of 26. The replacements could easily have a year to learn from their proposed predecessor before they fully go through the exit door, and so they need to be patient enough not to necessarily need to fit in right away.

So with that in mind, let’s now go on this wild search for the next wing wizard, capable of coming close to the insane levels of Mohamed Salah.

THE ROLE OF MOHAMED SALAH

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With an undeniable talent and eye for goal like few others, Mohamed Salah is impossibly difficult to replace. But we’re going to try and accomplish exactly that, by finding someone similar in style, and hopefully somewhere close in ability. So let’s talk about Salah’s frilly-haired style.

Mohamed Salah is one of the speediest forwards around, and frequently uses his speed to get in behind the opposition defense, as the team’s centre-forward drops in deep. Capable of playing both as the number 9 in a 4-2-3-1 or on the right wing in a 4-3-3, Salah has the versatility to adapt his game to meet the needs of the team.

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The Egyptian wizard can play on both feet, but loves to cut inside on his left foot in particular. Of his 16 goals so far this campaign, 13 have been scored with his left, and just 3 with his right. So in identifying a goal-scoring prophet like Salah, the foot they use and the way they cut inside on their left to work shooting angles is particularly important. But it’s more than just the foot. It’s also the range. Salah scores all kinds of goals, from thirty-yard screamers to tap-ins from four yards out. He’s capable of caressing the ball beautifully into the back of the net from anywhere, even after having already beaten four to five players.

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But with 9 assists in 20 matches this season, Salah is also an underrated creator. In fact, it’s a side of his game that has matured with age, and he’s on par for the most creative season of his career. The Egyptian is excellent at timing passes into the path of players like Mane or Jota, and excels in putting the exact right amount of weight and accuracy on a through-ball, cross or pass into the penalty area.

With exceptional poise in possession, fanciful footwork that makes defenders cringe in misery, and an amazing awareness of space, Salah becomes impossible to stop in the final third. He’s received the most progressive passes of all Premier League players this season, even despite heavy marking on behalf of Liverpool’s opposition throughout each of their matches. The perfect Salah replacement would therefore be someone who is more than just the goals, but also capable of creating for others, dancing around defenders, and frequently taking up the right positions in attack to receive progressive passes.

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Defensively, Salah also makes massive contributions. Only Brighton’s Neal Maupay and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki have put their opposition under more pressure in the attacking third this season than the Liverpool man. He doesn’t contribute much in the way of tackles, interceptions, or blocks, but he’s essential to the way Jurgen Klopp’s men press from the front. As already noted, our Mohamed Salah replacement therefore needs to be a capable presser, and ideally someone who already understands what it’s like to play for a high pressing team. If they can’t upgrade on Salah’s form in front of goal, they could certainly upgrade on his ability to win the ball from the front, and contribute things like tackles, interceptions and blocks.

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Before moving on to the candidates, it’s worth noting that Salah’s highest scoring season before joining Liverpool was his final season at Roma, where he bagged 15 goals in a defensively minded Serie A in 2016-17. Similarly, Jota’s 10 league goals at the halfway stage of this campaign already surpasses his two Premier League seasons at Wolves (9 and 7). Sadio Mane meanwhile achieved a league high 11 goals at Southampton, and doubled that figure in his Golden Boot season back in 2018-19. Liverpool’s next right winger could therefore be someone who scores goals for fun, about one in every three matches, and then takes off to new heights under the influence of Jurgen Klopp. If they have the beginning blocks we’ve listed in place, they’ll certainly be able to fill the boots, even if not to Salah’s insane standards.

the candidates

1. JARROD BOWEN

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25-year-old Jarrod Bowen is approaching an age where he’s now at the peak of his game. If a move were to be made for the West Ham wing wizard, now is the time. The left-footed Hammer has scored 6 goals with 7 assists in 23 Premier League matches this season, performing an irreplaceable role for David Moyes’ men. Capable of playing on both feet and working shooting angles from range and up close, Bowen has scored 3 with his left, 1 with his right, and 2 with his head so far this season. He’s capable of filling the number nine role when Antonio’s out injured, just as Salah often does when Liverpool change shape.

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Being a capable ball carrier, smooth dribbler, and creator, Jarrod Bowen ranks higher than most players in question on most attacking metrics in question, only consistently beaten by Salah himself. Perhaps most importantly though, he’s a grinder. Bowen works tirelessly off the ball, and has an energetic pace to him that is reminiscent of Salah’s own defensive style. With 160 pressures in the middle third this season, Bowen plays in a team that operates most prominently in a mid-block. But, he’s also completed 97 pressures in the attacking third and boasts the highest amount of total successful pressures of any player in our case study. He knows how to press from the front, even if West Ham don’t do it all that much.

A year ago, this would have seemed like a stretch. But Jarrod Bowen might be the perfect fit to replace Mohamed Salah. The signs are there for all to see in their stylistic fit, and in Jurgen Klopp’s history of turning decent goal-scorers into unstoppable ones.

2. Moussa Diaby

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Former PSG man Moussa Diaby is having a fantastic season at Bayer Leverkusen, as part of Gerardo Seoane’s stellar attack. Diaby’s claimed 8 goals with 6 assists in 18 league games this season, and another 3 goals with 2 assists in 6 UEFA Europa League matches. Another left-footed wing wizard who excels on the break, Diaby has the pace to match Salah…which is hard to do. Consistently reaching top speeds of around 33-35 km/per hour this season, Diaby’s been nearly impossible to stop as he links up with those around him. He’s formed a formidable partnership down the right with his fullback in Jeremie Frimpong, showcasing a fantastic understanding of how to position himself in correspondence with another player on his side. That’s particularly important for a side like Liverpool, where Trent Alexander-Arnold is so often involved in the attack.

Importantly, the 22-year-old Frenchman is also left-footed, and loves to cut inside. Of his 11 goals in all competitions, 3 have been with his right foot, and 8 with his left foot – which is very Salah-esque. But Diaby’s also more than just goals. He’s a capable dribbler, excellent crosser of the ball, and intelligent in creating chances for others.

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Still young enough where he could develop the holes in his game, Diaby does however have a few crutches. Leverkusen have not spent much time pressing from the front this season, and Diaby’s pressing and tackling numbers are in the bottom 9% and 6% of players in his position respectively. His pressure success rate isn’t all that high (24%), and he hasn’t played for a high pressing team since his days at PSG. His possession statistics could also improve – completing just 76% of his short passes this season. His long passing percentage is higher than all players we examined, but that’s something Liverpool won’t need to use as often as Leverkusen in opening up opposition defenses.

Moussa Diaby’s potential to play for Liverpool is certainly still a possibility, but he will need to improve his passing and pressing if he’s to knock Bowen out of the number one spot as things stand.

3. BUKAYO SAKA

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A pressing machine with an eye for goal, Bukayo Saka is our youngest candidate. The 20-year-old British winger has been Arsenal’s most important player two seasons running now, scoring 6 goals with 4 assists in 21 matches so far this league campaign. Five of those six have been scored with his stronger left foot, with the other on his right. Despite scoring and assisting significantly fewer than Salah’s 16 and 9, Saka’s shot-creating actions compares exceptionally well to the Egyptian’s. In fact, on a per 90 basis, it’s higher. Saka’s made 4.34 shot creating actions this season, to Salah’s 4.09. Saka’s 30 key passes also compares well to Salah’s 37, highlighting his creativity. Unfortunately, when it comes to goal creating actions, the script is flipped. Saka ranks bottom of all our players studied (0.26 per 90), with Salah topping the charts at nearly 1 goal creating action per game.

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But encouragingly, Salah has played for a high pressing team in Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, and ranks second in our list on pressure success percentage (29%). His tackle success rate is not good by any means (12.5%), but he’s still only 20 years old and that has to be remembered here.

A powerful runner with exceptional pace on the break, Saka also beats Salah when it comes to progressive carrying metrics, and dribbling success percentage. He’s a smooth dribbler who could easily develop Salah’s twinkle toes, even if the eye for goal would be more difficult to teach. In short, Saka has the most to work on of any of our players listed here, but he also has one of the highest ceilings. Liverpool would be wise to make a move for the youngster, weakening a top four rival in the process.

4. FEDERICO CHIESA

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Federico Chiesa is the only right footed player to make our candidates list, (and the only one to recently tear their ACL), but his powerful running off the ball matches up perfectly to Salah’s and makes a lot of logistical sense for the role. Even with that powerful running style, the 24-year-old has never been an out-and-out winger, whether he’s playing on the right or left. He loves to cut inside, and might as well be two-footed. On that note, he’s scored half of his goals with his weaker left foot in each of the last two seasons for both club and country.

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Where Chiesa shines above the rest is in his knack for hunting the ball down, pressing from the front and winning the ball on a tackle. He would be more Mane than Salah in tackling ability, but that could be a good thing to have on both wings nonetheless. In fact, with 2.1 tackles per 90, there’s very few right wingers who can come anywhere close to his tackling ability and work rate off the ball. Unsurprisingly, his pressure success rate also ranks the highest in our study, with his tackle percentage only bettered by Bowen.

8 goals and 8 assists in 2020-21 boasts well for his ability to be both a goal-scoring and creative threat for Liverpool, even if his 2 goals and 2 assists this season doesn’t do him justice. With his tireless energy, he’s also probably the only player other than Bowen who could successfully play as a number nine for the Reds. In style of play, it’s not the perfect fit, and he did just tear his ACL. But Chiesa would always put a shift in for Liverpool, and could be the man they need to lead Liverpool to more title glory.

VERDICT

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As we found out, finding Mohamed Salah’s replacement at Liverpool is a tough task. He’s a strangely unique player, who does just about everything in the game to great effect. Nobody will ever replace his goal-scoring presence for the Reds, and that much always needs to be taken into consideration. So with that, we’ve done something a bit crazy. We think the man that most closely resembles Salah at this current time is in fact, West Ham United’s rising star Jarrod Bowen. West Ham are not a high pressing team, but they have been pressing more and more this season, higher and higher up the pitch. Bowen’s goal and assist tallies are also extraordinary, and he’s an exceptional ball carrier, progressive passer and tackler. Being the oldest on our shortlist, Liverpool may want to go for someone younger like Saka or Diaby. But we think Bowen still has room to grow under the influence of Klopp, and could be purchased for the best value.

According to Transfermarkt, Bowen would cost Liverpool around £32 million, which happens to be the exact fee they paid for Mohamed Salah when he signed from AS Roma back in 2017. It would be a fantastic value buy for Liverpool to take advantage of, and it would instantly improve their next title charge. Jarrod Bowen fits everything Jurgen Klopp could ever want in a footballer, with his tireless, heavy metal energy exuding both confidence and poise. It’s so crazy, it just might work.


So there it is! Our attempt to find the next Mohamed Salah for Liverpool, in this tactical analysis. Be sure to check out more from our Transfer Market Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Also be sure to check out more from this series, where we analyzed who might be the next Roberto Firmino. Next up, Sadio Mane! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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