The Salah dilemma – will it cost us?

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by @CharlieMalam

It hasn’t quite been the January transfer window we’d hoped for. To say it’s been disappointing, well, would be an understatement. To compound our misery, we’ve had to sit and watch our rivals tie up smart signings whilst our latest arrival is a man dressed up as a giant chocolate donut pictured below the “This is Anfield” sign advertising a commercial deal with Dunkin’ Donuts.

“He can play well in the hole”, “the opposition will play straight through him”, “New signing Duncan Donuts on the bench for Liverpool”. Twitter has been rife with jokes mocking the club’s muted transfer activity and their focus on acquiring commercial deals. Of course, the deals with Vauxhall, Garuda Indonesia and Dunkin’ Donuts will all help the club financially in the long-term but it is on the pitch right now where Liverpool must grasp the opportunity at their feet.

For the first time in several seasons, there is a real opportunity that Champions League qualification could be gained. Once again, that famous theme tune could be heard on a cold Wednesday night in Liverpool. The little sleeve patch could once again adorn the Red shirts across Merseyside. The tantalising prospect of facing Europe’s big boys as Anfield becomes a cacophonous cauldron of noise. Finally, the illustrious lure of playing amongst the world’s best could again allow Rodgers to attract a crop of up-and-coming stars, the likes that Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have been able to attract in recent years. The pain of sitting back and watching United acquire £37million Juan Mata whilst Chelsea add to their overwhelmingly dense crop of midfield options and Arsenal close in on another fantastic German, in this case Julian Draxler, has been pretty irritating to say the least. It is to City’s testament that they haven’t even had to re-strengthen their side with their firepower having worked to full effect since the season first kicked off. Instead, it is Liverpool, perhaps the team most desperate for reinforcements, who lay lacklustre in the transfer window. Even rivals Everton, have done business and look to be in a strong position to compete for fourth. But why haven’t we done the business when it seems to have been excruciatingly obvious that we need to?

Given the success from the combined £20million acquistions of Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho this time last year, Liverpool fans expected a repeat that would boost our chances for the draining last few months of the season. As of yet, Rodgers was pretty astute at assessing our weaknesses and going about strengthening and improving upon them. We expected a new midfielder, a full-back or two and maybe even another attacking option, but we have seen no-one come through the doors. We are yet to see a picture of Zaf Iqbal awkwardly caressing a half-naked footballers inner thigh or a picture of any new addition leaning against anything in Melwood, much to the disappointment of Liverpool fans.

The explanation simply must be that the right deal has not presented itself. Liverpool have been known to stumble with prices, and that is again supposedly what they have done, refusing to succumb to the demands of players or clubs. Rightly so I may add, but should they let it get to an extent where the player/club can simply turn to another team and receive his/their demands instantly? We have refused to be stung, which is a positive after being held to ransom by Newcastle, Sunderland and Villa for Carroll, Henderson and Downing several years back. From the sales of Carroll and Downing, Liverpool recouped only £20million from a £55million spend and we most certainly wish never to see such a waste (bar Henderson) again. This will still be fresh in the minds of Fenway Sports Group for sure, but should they let it affect every other attempted deal? Is this not hindering Rodgers’ chances of the top four?

Yann M’Vila. Fernando Reges. Mohammed Salah. Just three of several players heavily linked with a move to Anfield in recent weeks and months. Despite the fragility of Liverpool’s defence, it has been firmly established by everyone affiliated with the club that a defensive midfield is needed. Steven Gerrard has been thrust into the role in recent games and so far failed to adjust, but injuries and a lack of squad depth has meant Rodgers has little other choice. Gerrard can cope and play his game slightly more so when he has Lucas to “mop up” behind him and Jordan Henderson as the legs of the midfield, but the inconsistent success of that trio meant that Joe Allen replaced Steven Gerrard when he recovered from an injury and Gerrard suffered a spell on the sidelines. This coincided with Liverpool’s most fruitful form of the season, with strong displays against Spurs, Chelsea (the second half) and City.

Arguably, Allen-Lucas-Henderson is the strongest midfield three with their intensive pressing, their simultaneous attacking and defensive contributions and the fresher legs of Allen and Henderson that allow them to push forward and provide help for whoever is ahead of them. A midfield three is undoubtedly strongest (as the disastrous midfield two against Villa showed), whether that be in a 4-3-1-2 formation with Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge ahead of the midfield three or a 4-3-3 with Suarez, Sturridge and likely Sterling. Of course this springs much debate as to what Gerrard can and cannot offer to the team and whether the decision to bench him in favour of those three when fully fit would be popular or not. Everyone will have a different opinion and until the situation presents itself, no one can truly be sure as to what would be best.

Despite the imminent need for defensive midfield reinforcements, the desires of the Kop have gone unfulfilled. With Lucas out for several weeks and Allen suffering from recurring injuries this leaves only Henderson and Gerrard as Liverpool’s main midfield options. Until one of the former returns, Rodgers’ is presented with a headache in the centre of the park and has to completely alter his system. Surely then this means Liverpool should be searching for back-up in that area? Well, no, apparently not. Regardless of the relatively cheap availability of M’Vila from Rubin Kazan, Liverpool are unlikely to make a move this month at least. Liverpool’s failure to grasp this opportunity may be devastating in hindsight, and it’s likely that Brendan Rodgers himself knows this. What is he supposed to do if the funds aren’t available? Clearly, FSG’s model has it’s drawbacks and they may have to modify it if they want to repeat the success they have achieved with the Red Sox over here in England with Liverpool.

The resentment towards the failure to sign Salah is perhaps misplaced, given a vast majority only hold an opinion on the player through hearsay or several impressive performances against Chelsea (he has 3 goals in 4 games against them). Not many, are experts on the Swiss Super League, and so not many can claim they know how good he actually is. Then again it might not matter, given the promise the Egyptian has and the length of time Liverpool had flirted with acquiring his services. Some, disappointed at the failure to capture him, have argued that Liverpool don’t need another forward, given their prolific striking duo of Suarez and Sturridge, who have provided 33 of 53 Liverpool goals in the league this season. In 2013 too, the duo produced 51 goals together (29 Suarez, 22 Sturridge) and have 36 goals between them in all competitions (22 Suarez, 14 Sturridge) in addition to another 10 assists (7 Suarez, 3 Sturridge) in the current campaign. Indeed, they do have a point but surely the club should be looking to ease the reliance on the two’s input and provide them with some more assistance? After all, Philippe Coutinho’s goal-scoring form has been questionable and Raheem Sterling’s end product still has more to desire (though it is improving). Okay, so Suso, Borini and perhaps even Assaidi could come back into the mix next season and Alberto and Aspas are yet to really be given a chance but missing out on Salah could be damaging for the club, off-the-pitch, if not on it.

The failure to clinch the deal will most likely damage the club’s image more than anything. Again, a top target has slipped through their grasp and for the second time in six months it has been Chelsea who have stolen that target. Willian, Diego Costa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have at least, proved that our scouts are looking in the right places with all of them having enjoyed decent form (fantastic in the case of Costa) at their respective clubs. Much of the disappointment with Mohammed Salah is the length of the time the club have publicly scouted the player and the disparity between Liverpool and Basel’s valuations of the players. Reports differ but the general consensus is that Liverpool wanted him for between £8-10 million whereas the Switz club wanted upwards of £12 million with some rumouring they have sealed a deal with Chelsea worth £15million (as reported by Sky Sports), a fee which the Merseyside club’s transfer committee must not have seen as valuable business.

Whilst it is admittedly not an immediate priority, it’s unlikely that the money is to be spent on improving elsewhere this month so what’s the harm in pushing for the deal? Perhaps our reluctance to look elsewhere is because our other targets are unobtainable at the current moment in time, however they should have been more pro-active in enquiring about players before the window, like they did to seal Coutinho and Sturridge last year. Even if it is not an immediate priority, a deal for Salah would have undoubtedly increased the side’s quality. Albeit, he is an unpolished diamond but the incompetence to stall on a deal and allow him to go to a close rival, is probably not the wisest of moves even if he only ends up being a squad player at Stamford Bridge. The move also allowed Mata to move to United and so in essence, two of their rivals have strengthened whilst Liverpool have stood still.

Of course, a lack of business has regurgitated talk of previous transfer fees. The £7.9million and £7million spent on Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto looks to have been unwisely spent, as does another £7million on Tiago Ilori who has rarely managed to make the bench and has been loaned to Granada, despite the club’s defensive troubles. All cases have inner contextual factors that have hampered their impacts, but in hindsight the money currently looks to have been spent rather foolishly on players that for the meantime will remain squad players and have a relatively miniscule impact on the first team.

Liverpool’s biggest enemy this season has inevitably been injuries. Given that the squad is paper thin, it was obvious that injuries would repeatedly damage Brendan Rodgers’ assault on the top four. Approximately 17 players have been injured and Suarez and Henderson also both picked up several knocks, but have battled on regardless. At least 8 of these 17 are first-team players and others such as Jon Flanagan had began to cement first eleven positions before their injuries. The most damaged areas have been full back and centre midfield, as first-choice Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique have both suffered long-term setbacks and Martin Kelly has spent erratic spells on the sidelines. Lucas, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard have all too spent several weeks out of action throughout the campaign and it has undoubtedly damaged the club’s chances of a top four finish. Therefore surely, it would make sense to find replacements, but for Liverpool it seemingly is not going to happen. The frustrations of the January window will only come back to haunt the Reds should they fail to act within the coming days, and that is what most fans fear. The window is frighteningly similar to January of 2012, when Ibe was signed for the youth team and Danny Wilson was loaned out. Doesn’t sound too similar? Around the same time Lucas had picked up an injury the month previously, and his absence hampered the rest of the season. Surely this couldn’t happen again.. could it?

In short, the club’s transfer activity has been inadequate and it will likely cost them their best opportunity to obtain the financial rewards of Champions League football should they fail to acquire midfield depth before the deadline on Friday night. I, in addition to millions of other Reds, will be hoping that a fresh face is seen strewn across a medical table with Zaf Iqbal or pictured unpleasantly leaning on something, before the transfer deadline, but the likelihood of that happening is much less than any of us would like it to be. The next week is potentially huge for the club, and could be season defining. It’s up to Rodgers, FSG and the transfer committee to make sure it’s a memorable one for all the good reasons as opposed to the bad.