Salah’s Void to Fill
Time is now rapidly approaching for Liverpool and Mohamed Salah to say goodbye. Not permanently, that will hopefully come years into the future. But for a little while at least, Salah and Liverpool must part ways.
Salah is expected to join the Egypt squad ahead of the African Cup of Nations after Liverpool’s New Year fixture against Newcastle United. Depending on how well his country does at the tournament (and whether Liverpool progress in the FA Cup) he could miss as many as nine games.
There is no doubt missing Salah for such a significant chunk of the season will be a blow for Liverpool.
Who replaces him?
Liverpool has attacking options [although they are dwindling with injuries) but few are players who are suited to play on the right-wing. Out of the currently available attackers, Cody Gakpo, Darwin Núñez and Luis Díaz are all right-footed and are much more effective cutting into their preferred foot from the left.
Many have suggested Dominik Szoboszlai could step-up into the role, since he played a lot last season in a wide-attacking midfield role for RB Leipzig, but Klopp would have the same problem with the Hungarian.
The Liverpool boss could perhaps turn to youngsters, but Ben Doak is expected to be unavailable due to the injury he sustained in training for Liverpool. Meanwhile, although Kaide Gordon put in a good performance in the Europa League against Union SG, stepping into such responsibility would come too soon in his rehabilitation process.
One natural solution
During the last AFCON tournament in 2022, Klopp used Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Salah’s replacement on the right-wing, moving him up from midfield into a position he often played for Arsenal and the England national team.
It was a trick that worked with Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring twice in two games and contributing to two victories in the process.
This time around Klopp doesn’t have Oxlade-Chamberlain to call-upon, but he does have Harvey Elliott – probably the most natural solution to solving the Salah AFCON problem.
In his academy days, Elliott was predominantly a right-winger. That’s where he played most of his minutes for Liverpool’s academy and also while he was out on loan at Blackburn Rovers in the Championship.
Naturally, since he is left-footed just like Salah he could pretty much take on a similar role to the Egyptian on the right-wing. Like Salah, Elliott is very effective at cutting onto his left foot and moving into central positions from the right.
He showed that against Crystal Palace with a well-taken last-gasp winner and then almost did the same against Arsenal when he came on, only for his shot to be blocked and narrowly scrape the post on the way out for a corner.
The numbers in his favour
This season Elliott has played a total of 369 minutes on the right-wing for Liverpool and 13 minutes for country. In those minutes he hasn’t scored or assisted a goal. However, he has averaged 0.36 expected goals per 90 while accumulating 0.18 expected assists per 90.
Those underlying numbers seem to suggest he should have gotten a lot more goals and assists in the position. The fact that he averaged 5.65 touches per 90 in the opposition’s penalty area – more than Salah (5.61) further backs up that point.
There were definitely a few chances he had inside the penalty area where he should have done a lot better. Similarly, to Núñez, Elliott can still be a little erratic in front of goal – but that is to be expected from a 20 year old. Elliott still has a lot of time to eliminate those uncertainties in his game and produce the numbers he should be producing based on his underlying metrics.
Especially, as he has already produced similar numbers at senior and academy level in the past. During his time playing on the right-wing for Blackburn he averaged 0.56 goal contributions per 90 and before that he was even more impressive for Liverpool at academy level averaging 1.07 goal contributions per 90 in the Premier League 2, UEFA Youth League and EFL Trophy.
Elliott makes sense
Another factor why Elliott makes sense is not just his goal-threat but his ability to create as well. It often goes unnoticed but Salah is key for Liverpool when it comes to creating chances not just scoring goals.
This season in the Premier League, Salah has created the most big chances (14) in the league and has the joint most assists (7). He is also in the top five for chances created (43) overall.
Elliott is also a very good creator himself. He’s shown that this season creating not just a high volume of chances but a high volume of quality chances. As per FBref, Elliott averages the second most expected assists per 90 (0.25) alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold for Liverpool, only marginally behind Mohamed Salah (0.27).
Off the ball work
Another factor why Elliott could suit Liverpool on the right is his off the ball work.
In the minutes he has played as a right-winger for Liverpool he has averaged 4.48 recoveries with 73.7% coming in the opposition’s half according to Wyscout. He’s also averaged 6.6 defensive duels per 90 winning 67.9%. For comparison, Salah averages 2.89 defensive duels per 90 in the position this season winning 68.5% and averages 2.66 recoveries per 90 with 73.2% coming in the opposition’s half.
Pressing from the front is a crucial component of Klopp’s style, and Elliott has elevated that element of his game recently. Playing him on the right will ensure Liverpool will have someone who will be able to maintain Salah’s defensive contributions in the opposition’s final third, and potentially even surpass them.
To illustrate just how early Elliott is in his career, at the same age as Elliott, Salah had only just arrived in Europe, and had scored just 12 professional goals – Elliott currently has 14.
Salah’s absence during AFCON, could be another step in Elliott’s own metamorphosis as a player. He won’t be perfect, but it’s a temporary solution, and out of the 5 league games Salah could miss, only two will be against a team (Arsenal and Chelsea) in the current top 10 on the table.
This season, Elliott has shown a lot of improvement already and he has proved he’s got a goal-scoring touch. For club and country he already has 10 goal contributions in 1561 minutes averaging a goal or assist 0.57 per 90 minutes. That’s obviously a lot less than Salah, but it’s not a bad return, and it’s a good foundation to build on.
Last time around there was a lot of premonition and impending doom when Salah went off to AFCON but in the end Liverpool didn’t miss him much. In three games, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored two goals in two starts, and in the other Diogo Jota scored twice while playing on the right-wing – with Liverpool winning every single league game.
The Reds can only hope for the same this time around.