The closing of Saudi Arabia’s transfer window has finally ended weeks of discussions around Mohamed Salah’s future at Liverpool — but only for now.
Al Ittihad failed in their attempt to bring the Egyptian international to the Saudi Pro League, whose aggressive recruitment drive has dominated the summer.
Liverpool had no interest in selling their star player when there was a short time left in the English transfer window, let alone once it had closed on September 1, but the push to sign the most famous Arab footballer in the world was real.
Al Ittihad bid £100million ($126m), potentially rising to £150m with add-ons, and were said to be willing to go up to £200million to get their man.
But Liverpool rejected the first offer last Friday and didn’t entertain another. The closing hours of the Saudi window were quiet, much to the relief of Liverpool fans.
Interest will not fade away, though — details of a contract worth £200million over three years have already been drawn up. Money is no object for the club managed by Nuno Espirito Santo and bankrolled by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, so this is a saga that will rumble on and leave Liverpool and Salah, 31, with three obvious options.
The Athletic looks at what each entails.
It should be reiterated that Liverpool considered the sale of Salah closed as soon as Fenway Sports Group president, Mike Gordon, finished his short telephone conversation with the Saudis last week.
Usually, when the hands-off warning is so strong, that stance would still be holding firm when the next window opens on January 1 (it closes on January 30).
But four months in football is a long time, and this case is complex and unusual. Salah, so wonderfully talented, durable and efficient, even at 31, is vital to the way Jurgen Klopp wants to play and to Liverpool achieving their ambitions.
Yet the chance to quadruple his salary to around £1.5million a week did turn his head, and the push from Al Ittihad will not relent as they continue to look for marquee players. That Salah is Muslim enhances his appeal in Saudi Arabia, and there’s a feeling that it’s a case of when, not if, Salah eventually moves. Money is certainly not a stumbling block for Al Ittihad, one of four clubs supported by the PIF.
That said, the chances of a January deal have to be considered slight. Liverpool would only be halfway through their season and, assuming they have maintained their impressive start to the campaign, they would surely be loath to risk derailing it by selling their most influential player.
Liverpool could use the four months until the opening of the winter window to line up a possible replacement for Salah, but the reality is that stellar deals of that kind are a rarity in January.
As they proved this summer, Liverpool see more value in having Salah in their team rather than cash in their account when they are not best placed to spend it.
Salah’s big-money move feels inevitable – but Saudi-Egyptian relations are complicated
This seems to be the most likely scenario.
First, Al Ittihad’s interest is not going away — Salah is considered such a prize that the club and the PIF will surely be happy to wait if next summer offers a better chance of securing its man.
Second, Salah should also have clarity over his prospects with Liverpool by the end of the season. Either this campaign will prove that the club are ready to fight again for the biggest prizes, or they will have failed to close the gap at the top of the Premier League after a year without Champions League football. If it is the latter, Salah may decide the time is right to push for a move.
Third, Salah will have just one year left on his deal by next summer and turns 32 in June. Liverpool will know it is their last chance to secure good money for him and for club owner Fenway Sports Group, which has always preached a self-sustaining business model, the economic case to sell could be overwhelming.
Finally, a full year should be enough time for Liverpool to properly scour the market for his replacement and lay the groundwork for a deal. Building a team without Salah is daunting, but big transfers are easier to pull off in the summer, when selling clubs are not under as much time pressure.
This feels like the most unlikely of the three scenarios but it should not be ruled out.
Salah, the fifth-highest scorer in the club’s history, is already the highest-paid player on £350,000 per week and is only 13 months into the revamped three-year deal he signed last summer.
As a Liverpool legend who has won everything domestically as well as the Champions League, European Super Cup and Club World Cup — only the Europa League remains, and the club are the early favourites to win this season’s edition — Salah has always been respectful when it comes to discussions around his future.
This season, he felt it was important to bounce back after missing out on Europe’s elite club competition. There was sadness and frustration in his words when he said at the end of last season there was “no excuse” for finishing fifth in the Premier League, a feeling that was shared by his team-mates.
Salah’s competitive spirit burns as brightly as ever. If he shines and Klopp’s side return to their scintillating best, he may not feel ready to move to a league that is still a minor player in terms of quality and audience. That might open the door for an extended stay on Merseyside.
(Top photo: Matt McNulty/Getty Images)
Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.
Gregg Evans is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Aston Villa FC. Previously he spent over a decade at the Birmingham Mail covering West Midlands football. His time with Villa includes six managers, three ownership groups, an FA Cup Final, the fatal relegation campaign and an epic return to the Premier League. Follow Gregg on Twitter @greggevans40