How do you replace Mohamed Salah?
It is the question nobody at Liverpool wants to think about, but the prospect of losing one of the greatest players in the club’s history could be edging closer with the Saudi Pro League likely to try again for his services in January or next summer.
Salah may yet stay, but it would surely be wise for Liverpool to start preparing for his departure given his age (31) and contract status (two years left).
It is a big hole to fill. Salah has 309 appearances, 188 goals and 81 assists at Liverpool, and since he joined the club in 2017, he’s yet to average below one goal every two games in the Premier League (0.68 goals per 90).
It is not just his goals that need replacing, but his underrated creativity. Even accounting for a below-par season in 2020-21, he is averaging an assist every three league games across his Liverpool career.
Then there is his exemplary fitness record, which has allowed him to be almost ever-present in Premier League games.
He is a unicorn in Liverpool’s squad: a left-footed right-winger with strength, pace, creativity and a goalscoring instinct. No other player fits that bill. There are only a handful in world football who do.
Liverpool have multiple options, some more fanciful than others, but they ultimately break down into four categories. Here, we analyse each of them.
Salah’s big-money move feels inevitable – but Saudi-Egyptian relations are complicated
When you lose a star player the natural instinct is to replace them with another.
If Liverpool receive the amount of money Al-Ittihad are contemplating bidding — an offer which could have been worth up to £150million was rejected last month — then theoretically the transfer world should be their oyster. In classic Football Manager style, no search restrictions are needed.
Starting big, let’s look no further than Kylian Mbappe. The French striker, who is set to be a free agent next summer, would be as close to affordable as he has ever been for Liverpool after years of rumoured interest.
The 24-year-old is one of the best players in the world. With no transfer fee required, the money generated for the Salah deal could be put towards the mega salary required and additional costs, such as a signing-on and agent fees. Whatever those salary demands are, they would be replacing the highest earner with another.
He would want to be Liverpool’s central striker, so somebody would still need to play as the right-winger, but, well, you would find a way around that given this is Mbappe we’re talking about.
More problematic is Real Madrid’s well-documented interest in signing him and Mbappe’s long-held determination to play for them. Convincing him that Anfield, not the Bernabeu, should be his new home may prove beyond even Jurgen Klopp’s powers of persuasion.
To be more position-specific, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka profiles perfectly. The left-footed right-winger has grown into one of the best attackers in the Premier League and he is only 22. He was a major catalyst in his team’s title challenge last season with 14 goals and 11 assists, and is only going to get better.
Any transfer fee would have to be at least the equivalent of the money quoted for Salah — if not more as Saka penned a four-year contract in May, is nearly 10 years younger (so his potential and room for development is huge) and Arsenal would surely be vehemently opposed to any possible sale. Saka himself would also have to be convinced to move away from his boyhood club — key to that would be Liverpool’s trajectory projecting higher than Arsenal’s.
There are not a whole host of top-quality left-footed right-wingers so, as with Mbappe, Liverpool could just try and buy one of the best attackers in the world and work out how it all fits together later.
Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is a prime example. After bursting onto the scene last season with his skilful quick feet, dynamic speed and youthful exuberance, he quickly established himself as a £100million player.
Liverpool felt the full force of him in their 4-1 Champions League group stage defeat in Naples last season. The 22-year-old Georgian international’s 12 goals and 13 assists helped power Napoli to the Serie A title.
Let’s also not forget the Brazilian who has given Liverpool too many Champions League nightmares in recent seasons, including scoring the winner in the 2022 final: Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior.
Another right-footed left-winger, the 23-year-old has obvious star quality. A game-changer and proven on the biggest stages, he would be crucial in maintaining Liverpool’s attack as one of the best in Europe.
The chances of Real even being prepared to countenance a bid, though, are surely remote.
Salah is a high-volume attacker, averaging a minimum of three shots per game across his whole Premier League career since joining Liverpool.
His driving runs from the right flank into productive areas are always purposeful. No Premier League player logged more attacking carries — that is, a carry of five-plus yards that results in a shot or chance created — than Salah’s 58 last season.
Within a far less possession-dominant side, Jarrod Bowen is among the top 20 by this metric, with 41 attacking carries putting him above the likes of Antony (38), Jack Grealish (33) and Raheem Sterling (30). Whether it is driving to the byline to create for others, or dropping the shoulder to get a shot away, Bowen has a similar desire for providing end product once he gets going.
Bowen is a player Liverpool admire and have been watching for a number of seasons. How he would fare in a team that dominate the ball more and need to break down low block defences more often would be a key question.
In the same bracket, Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise just edges Bowen with 42 attacking carries in total.
The 21-year-old had his best season in a Palace shirt, becoming their first player to ever record 10 or more assists in a single Premier League campaign — with only Salah, Leandro Trossard, and Kevin De Bruyne logging more in 2022-23.
While he might not yet possess the eye for goal that the elite wide forwards have, Olise’s pace, power, close control and eye for a pass are why he has caught the attention of many Premier League clubs this summer — including Chelsea (who tried to sign him in August) and Manchester City.
Olise is currently out until October with a hamstring tear and signed a new contract to stay at Selhurst Park in August. Not possessing the goalscoring instinct would potentially require Liverpool to change their attacking approach, so the other forward options may need to take on more responsibility.
The reinvention of Leroy Sane as a left-footed right-winger would represent another interesting option. He is older than the other suggestions (27), so may not represent the same long-term potential or resale value, but his Premier League quality cannot be disputed.
According to FBref, the player who profiles most similarly to Salah is Aston Villa’s Moussa Diaby. After moving to the Premier League this summer, he has made a positive start to life in England, scoring two goals and one assist in four league games. His pace and goalscoring instinct have stood out, but it is still early days for him at his new club.
If Liverpool’s recruitment staff are sifting through the profile of a Salah replacement, then the following traits must be crucial — a young, left-footed, versatile forward with European experience, who can burst forward at pace and has end product.
Real Sociedad’s Takefusa Kubo simply has to be on that shortlist.
The 22-year-old already has plenty of experience under his belt, with loan moves to Mallorca (twice), Getafe and Villarreal, before being sold to Real Sociedad from Real Madrid last summer — having been schooled in Barcelona’s La Masia as a teenager.
50 to watch – Takefusa Kubo: Real Sociedad’s flexible left-footed forward
Stylistically, the Japanese forward likes to run at his man — a lot. Per FBref, Kubo’s 4.3 attempted take-ons per 90 last season was in the top six per cent of all forwards in La Liga last season.
Based on the aforementioned attacking carries, only Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr (80), Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco (56), and Athletic Bilbao’s Nico Williams (50) logged more attacking carries than Kubo’s 47 in La Liga last season.
Most notably, these carries are heavily geared towards shot-ending carries, with 68 per cent of his total attacking carries ending with a strike on goal.
But he is no one-dimensional speed demon; Kubo has versatility, too — he is able to operate on either flank and also forged a strong relationship with Norway’s Alexander Sorloth in Imanol Alguacil’s 4-1-3-2 last season.
The forward is starting to add goals and assists to his game — nine and seven respectively last season. He has already bagged three goals and one assist this term.
Having been sold to Sociedad last summer, Real Madrid inserted a buy-back clause so it would be a delicate situation but he is surely one to monitor.
Another stylistic fit would by PSV’s Johan Bakayoko who was widely linked with top clubs this summer including, briefly, Liverpool.
The 20-year-old opted to stay in Holland despite Brentford’s €40million (£34m; $42m) bid being accepted in the closing stages of the window.
Bakayoko is a keen, powerful dribbler, attempting five take-ons per 90 which was in the top 20 per cent for the Eredivisie’s attacking midfielders and wingers. His success rate (59 per cent) was among the best, too.
Looking at Bakayoko’s smarterscout profile, his high-volume carrying and dribbling is a key method for him to advance the ball for his team — comfortably higher than his passing or ability to receive the ball in high areas.
The reservation over Bakayoko would be his lack of senior football. Liverpool prefer their players to have over 100 first-team senior appearances across club and international level. The Belgian has made 29 league appearances for PSV, after bursting onto the scene last season, and has 45 in all competitions.
In January 2018, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142million after rejecting interest in the summer. Instead of buying a direct replacement, they signed centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson for a combined £135million — and two years later had won the Champions League and Premier League.
Following the midfield rebuild this summer, there was frustration the defence was not addressed. That logically will be next summer’s focus (potentially alongside a Salah replacement) and signing two young, high-quality defenders could be a good use of the money.
There is no natural senior, first-team replacement for Salah. Luis Diaz, who has appeared there briefly, and Diogo Jota would make the most likely alternatives. Both are right-footed and would cut off passing and shooting angles. Harvey Elliott is another option, but his lack of pace, strength and goalscoring instinct further emphasises why Klopp prefers him as a midfielder.
Ben Doak is the highly rated emerging youngster who Liverpool will hope becomes their next Salah. He impressed in cameos last season and in pre-season but it would be unfair to ask him to step into Salah’s shoes just yet.
Kaide Gordon is another highly rated academy prospect, but his first-team ambitions have been derailed for the past 18 months due to injury — although he did return for the under-21s earlier this month.
Having shifted Liverpool’s in-possession system recently, Klopp is unlikely to want to overhaul things drastically again. However, the acknowledgement that he is not going to find a like-for-like replacement for Salah could mean that alterations in the system — for example, using a 4-4-2 diamond — might allow him to find a goalscoring edge elsewhere.
Liverpool’s summer transfer window has ended positively but has arguably been the most difficult since Klopp joined. He will be under no illusions that replacing Salah will be his toughest transfer challenge of all.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.