Alternative view: Why Liverpool should not bow to Salah

Date published: Wednesday 2nd February 2022 6:28 - Editor F365

Mo Salah in action for Liverpool

On Friday June 23 2017, the reaction to Mohamed Salah’s transfer from Roma to Liverpool was somewhat mixed.

The Guardian called the fee, reported to be a potential £43.9 million, ‘staggering’. The Roma president, James Palotta, who had presumably seen a fair bit of Salah, took his counterpart John W Henry out to lunch after the sale, believing the terms to be so favourable to his club that he was obliged to pick up the bill. And many of social media’s best and brightest were similarly unconvinced. Unable to square the amount spent with Salah’s ill-fated spell at Chelsea, one Twitter user graciously made his thoughts on the matter known. ‘LOLOL club record for MOHAMED SALAH’, wrote @pacesettaCFC, ‘bahahahahahahahahahahahahaha’.

In fairness to him, four-and-a-half years is a veritable eon in football. A week prior to the deal being confirmed, back in the barren wastes before Declan Rice made everything alright, England lined up for a World Cup qualifier against Scotland with Jake Livermore and Eric Dier in central midfield. Still, it must be said that that tweet, and the countless others like it, have not aged well.

Because Salah has quite clearly been a phenomenon. There is a mountain of data you could chuck at this – 31% more goal involvements than any other Premier League player since he signed would be a sensible place to start, if you were so minded – but none of it is relevant or necessary. To have been alive and sentient these past few years is to know that he is an apex footballer in every single sense. An apex footballer whose future is now in some doubt.

Negotiations, we are told, will gear up post-AFCON. He is asking, we are told, for somewhere around £350-380k a week. And there is every reason for him to get it. With a player of such pedigree, such a fundamental cog in the fine motor functions of the side, you pay whatever he is asking. But do you?

For starters, it is an astronomical outlay. Whilst Liverpool are not exactly cash-strapped, the pandemic has hit them hard, with their reliance on matchday income and player sales leaving them more vulnerable to its vicissitude than most. And if this purported Salah deal wouldn’t quite break the bank, it would likely break a prudent financial model that has seen Fenway Sports Group pay out just £26 million in loans over the last ten years, compared to £448 million up the M62 at Manchester United.

More to the point, it would break the club’s wage structure so resoundingly that there would be nothing of it left.

The message this sends to a squad of players is potentially very damaging; particularly, a squad like Liverpool’s. This is a club built upon Bill Shankly’s socialist ethos that “the only way to be truly successful is by collective effort”. Whatever you think of this – self-aggrandising nonsense or a genuinely powerful tradition – you have to conclude that there remains a truth to it. Whilst their current owners are not exactly Bolsheviks, one look at Jordan Henderson’s work during Covid or Jurgen Klopp getting the lagers in for the lads suggests that these principles still permeate through Liverpool in the modern age. That this is a left-leaning club, in a left-leaning city, for whom old working-class values of commonality, togetherness and equality still matters.

Liverpool corner flag

And this is reflected on the balance sheets. Again, we are not talking Stavka here, and Liverpool’s players are still grossly overpaid in every real sense, but by the standards of the industry they are in, at the level they are at, their wage structure is fundamentally egalitarian. Their top 15 earners are separated by just £130k per week; as opposed to £250k at Chelsea, £260k at Manchester City and £360k at United.

This has patently not been a barrier to City, but they operate on a different level and by a different rulebook. But for United and Chelsea, it is inconceivable that five United players taking home at least double Bruno Fernandes’ wages, or Mason Mount lining up each week alongside a centre-forward who earns almost five times as much as him, is anything other than destabilising to the dressing room.

At Liverpool, this kind of disparity simply doesn’t exist, and it is to their benefit. Of course, they have world-class players, but there is something more esoteric to their success under Klopp than technical quality alone. To cast your mind back to nights like that comeback win against Barcelona is to see one of the great team performances of the modern era. With Salah and Roberto Firmino missing, it was Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum who got the goals. Alongside, it is tempting to conclude, the Shankly-esque force of “collective effort”.

It is impossible to see this as anything other than at least slightly imperilled by the prospect of Salah’s new deal. Still more virulent than that, however, is the threat to Salah himself.

If recent years have shown us anything, it is that offering a huge final payday to a player at his peak is fraught with danger. When Mesut Özil signed his enormous new deal at Arsenal, eight months shy of his 30th birthday, he had been involved in 11 Premier League goals that season. His season average was 17. Between February and the end of the season, he contributed two assists. And then just two in the entirety of the next campaign.

It is the same story with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who went from netting 22 in each of his first two seasons, to only ten last term, having put pen to paper on a £350k-a-week contract. It is easy to forget how electrifying Gareth Bale was in his first three seasons at the Bernabeu – reaching double figures for both goals and assists in all of them – largely because he never did so again after signing a £600k-a-week extension in 2016. Even Kevin De Bruyne has been less productive this season, managing only one Premier League assist to date off the back of becoming City’s highest-paid player.

This pattern is perfectly natural. While injuries and the simple tick of time do play a role here, it is something less tangible that could be driving it.

We tend to think of footballers as either money-hungry charlatans who don’t give a toss about anything else, or these intrinsically driven avatars of our own desires, pursuing the successes that we so want for our clubs at all costs. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between. Footballers are motivated by money, in the same way that we all are, but they are also driven by more. Fame, respect, admiration, recognition: these all matter to players at the pinnacle of the game.

As Salah himself has said of his own contract-wrangling, what he wants is for Liverpool to “show [him] they can give [him] something, because they appreciate what [he] did for the club”. The money, whilst undoubtedly important on its own, is also evidence that his worth is recognised, definitively and irrevocably.

Yet, herein lies the biggest problem. Once you have that, definitely and irrevocably, what next? Once you have made it, what else is there to strive for? This is not a question of downing tools or resting on laurels, but one of basic human behaviour. Were Salah to be given the kind of figures being bandied about, it would be superhuman of him to continue at the level that he has been operating on. The drive for continual self-improvement is bound, in all but the most ridiculous of sporting specimens, to suffer.

All of this might not happen. He may sign a new salary-doubling mega-deal and hit even greater heights, and this opinion will age as badly as @pacesettaCFC’s. And such is the nature of heads and parapets, rods and backs, egg and face will ignominiously meet. But the possibility that things could go wrong here is at least something that Liverpool should consider. There is plenty to suggest it might.

Ed Capstick – follow him on Twitter

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