Why Liverpool will be able to cope without Salah during AFCON

By Alex Keble 8 Jan 2024
Elliott, Gakpo, Nunez

Alex Keble analyses how the leaders will fare without their star player after he left for AFCON

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Mohamed Salah just doesn’t miss Liverpool matches.

You have to go back to the end of the 2021/22 season and a 2-1 win at Southampton to find the last Premier League game in which Salah played no part.

Unbelievably, the winger has missed only 10 Premier League matches in his six-and-a-half years as a Liverpool player.

He could add almost 40 per cent to that total over the next month. Depending on how far Egypt progress at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), Salah could miss four Premier League matches and four further fixtures in the FA Cup and EFL Cup.

Whatever happens and however well Liverpool cope without him, Salah – the season’s standout entertainer so far - will be sorely missed.

Salah tops the Premier League charts for goal involvements with 22 and is the joint-leader for both goals with 14 and assists with eight, yet this doesn’t quite capture his dazzling form.

He is hitting career-high per-90 numbers for key passes with 2.44, progressive passes with 5.13, and through-balls with 0.67, reflecting a growing creative streak defined by a new trademark pass with the outside of his left boot.

Here’s a look at how Liverpool have fared without him in the past, how their upcoming fixtures compare to their title rivals, and whom Jurgen Klopp might pick to replace Salah through January.

Liverpool’s record without Salah

Salah is in the form of his life and Liverpool are top of the Premier League table. They could hardly have picked a worse time to lose him – yet it might not be such a big deal after all.

Across the 10 Premier League matches Salah has missed, Liverpool have picked up 24 points, winning seven and drawing the other three contests.

They drew 1-1 with Manchester United in October 2019, courtesy of an 85th-minute equaliser from Adam Lallana, and were twice held to goalless draws by Everton at Goodison Park, once in April 2018 and again in June 2020.

Although Liverpool won all the other seven matches, four were by a single goal and two - the 2-1 wins against Burnley in January 2018 and Crystal Palace in November 2019 – relied upon winners in the 85th minute or later.

More promisingly for Liverpool fans, during Salah’s last AFCON appearance, Klopp’s side breezed past Brentford and Palace, winning 3-0 and 3-1 respectively.

Liverpool's results without Salah
Date Result Date Result
January 2018 Burnley 1-2 Liverpool June 2020 Everton 0-0 Liverpool
April 2018 Everton 0-0 Liverpool November 2020 Liverpool 3-0 Leicester
October 2019 Man Utd 1-1 Liverpool January 2022 Liverpool 3-0 Brentford
November 2019 Palace 1-2 Liverpool January 2022 Palace 1-3 Liverpool
December 2019 Liverpool 5-2 Everton May 2022 Southampton 1-2 Liverpool
The challenge ahead as De Bruyne returns

Salah stands to miss Premier League matches against AFC Bournemouth, Chelsea, Arsenal and Burnley, although depending on Egypt’s performance, he could return sooner.

In fact, should Egypt fail to get through the group stages he would even be back in time to face Chelsea on 31 January. But it’s safer to assume he will be absent for four league fixtures.

At least three of the four are favourable.

Bournemouth’s transition-heavy football encourages end-to-end matches with huge amounts of space, such as their wild 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, which ought to mean free-scoring Liverpool can cope without Salah.

Liverpool have the highest Expected Goals (xG) in the Premier League with 44.1 and have taken 374 shots, considerably more than next-best Spurs, who have produced 319 efforts.

Salah is a big part of that, of course, but Liverpool’s overall firepower means all that space at Bournemouth – and against Burnley at Anfield – should ensure Salah’s absence isn’t felt too keenly.

In fact, even Chelsea under Mauricio Pochettino happily take part in high-octane basketball matches against the bigger sides.

That just leaves the all-important challenge of Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, a contest made all the more significant by Manchester City welcoming back Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland this month.

Over the same time period, Man City face Newcastle United, Burnley, Brentford, and Everton in the Premier League: a very kind set of fixtures in which to make up the five-point gap to Liverpool.

In other words, Liverpool cannot afford to drop many points while Salah is away.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Man City MCI 38 +62 91
2 Arsenal ARS 38 +62 89
3 Liverpool LIV 38 +45 82
4 Aston Villa AVL 38 +15 68
View More
Elliott is the best Salah substitute

Liverpool don’t have many right-wing options. Dominik Szoboszlai regularly played on the right for RB Leipzig, but only in a 4-2-2-2 formation, while Darwin Nunez, Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, are all right footed and have very little experience playing on the right wing.

Gakpo started on the right in the FA Cup third-round tie against Arsenal on Sunday, but that was partly because Harvey Elliott was needed in midfield to replace the injured Szoboszlai, who is expected to be fit for Liverpool’s next Premier League match.

With Szoboszlai back, Elliott is most likely the long-term choice to take Salah's place. He has been restricted to only two starts in 2023/24, coming off the bench a further 14 times for a total of 412 minutes, in which time he has scored one goal and assisted another.

His underlying numbers make for better reading. Elliott is averaging 1.96 key passes per 90 minutes, which is the second highest among Liverpool forwards, with only Salah ahead of him with 2.44.

He also tops Liverpool's charts for progressive passes per 90 with 8.48, which speaks to his urgency; precisely what Klopp demands of his attacking players.

But most important of all, Liverpool’s goals scored minus goals conceded per 90 stands at +2.62 when Elliott is on the pitch, which is the highest figure in the squad.

Elliott makes things happen – and Liverpool play well when he’s on the field.

He is a very different kind of player to Salah, of course, but Elliott’s less direct playing style, and his tendency to drift infield into the No 10 space, might complement the haphazard fury of Nunez in the middle.

At times, Salah and Nunez together is a little too straight-lined, and with Elliott neatly sewing things together on the right, Liverpool may have more control and order in the final third.

But variety could be Liverpool’s secret weapon

None of Liverpool’s other forwards have much experience on the right wing. But that’s only because Salah never misses a game.

There is no reason why Nunez, Gakpo, Diaz or Jota couldn’t fill in at different points on the right over the next month, and indeed constant rotation – causing confusing and whirlwind variations – could be Liverpool’s secret weapon in Salah’s absence.

In the blitz of Newcastle, in which Liverpool hit the highest Premier League xG on record with 7.27, Gakpo scored his first league goal since September, Jota was excellent from the bench and Nunez provided a confidence-boosting assist.

“99.99 per cent of players would have had the shot but Darwin decided to square the ball instead,” Klopp said after the match. “It was very special.”

A pessimist would say Salah’s two goals and assist, his 2.7 xG and 1.5 Expected Assists, inspired the performance. But an optimist would say that Salah leaves with the rest of the front line in top form.

It gives Klopp many options, but two in particular stand out.

Nunez playing off the right could be a like-for-like replacement for Salah’s direct running towards goal, with Gakpo counter-balancing as a "false nine".

Alternatively, Diaz can shake things up by driving round the outside of a full-back from the right, opening the pathway to cutbacks for Nunez - who could do with a tap-in.

Reasons for optimism

Whatever Klopp decides to do (moving Diaz to the right for the final 30 minutes in the FA Cup tie against Arsenal, with Jota playing as a false nine, hints at another option), the fact he has multiple choices is in itself reason to believe Liverpool will cope just fine, even if over half of their league goals to date have been scored or assisted by Salah.

It is a strong position to be in ahead of a run of Premier League games against expansive opponents, none of whom will park the bus.

“I loved the game, I loved the atmosphere,” Klopp said after the Newcastle win. “We all took together these missed chances. It was not like, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?’. Everybody was just really on fire.”

If they keep that momentum going, if they remain on fire, Salah will return to England with Liverpool still top of the league.

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