It was a football decision by the Moneyballers. If every player has his price, if the mathematical values used on the balance sheet can drive sporting decisions on grounds of logic rather than emotion, the £150m Al-Ittihad offered for a 31-year-old with two years left on his contract would have been accepted. Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners and businessmen who tried to hire the original Moneyballer, Billy Beane, for Boston Red Sox, have long followed the numbers.
Yet if the message from Anfield was clear, that Mohamed Salah was not for sale and that, confronted with the prospect of a salary perhaps even larger than those his former teammates Jordan Henderson and Fabinho get between them in Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian did not seem tempted, other numbers have an eloquence.
When Salah dispatched a penalty past Alphonse Areola, he became the fifth player to either score or assist in each of his side’s first six league games of a season. The other four – David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Sergio Aguero and Erling Haaland – represent fine company and, but for a remarkable miss by Darwin Nunez, Salah would have both scored and assisted against West Ham.
But that is not the extent of his productive streak. The last Liverpool match when Salah was not directly involved in a goal was against the Hammers, but in April. He has scored or made a goal in each of the subsequent 13. Nor does that feel a coincidence. There was a relentlessness to Salah’s excellence on Sunday, but then there often has been.
If, in his thirties, he shows few signs of slowing down, Salah may be changing. For a player who has often been accused of selfishness, he has long amassed impressive tallies of assists. Yet now he may be more creative than before. He shares the lead for the most assists in the top flight this season, but other statistics suggest he has a greater measure of superiority over his fellow suppliers.
Salah’s expected assists total of 4.03 is almost 50 per cent more than that of his closest challenger, Moussa Diaby. He has created eight big chances in the league this season; the next most is five. An average of 0.68 expected assists per 90 minutes is almost double his best over an entire season and if it is partly explained by a small sample size, and will logically decrease, it is almost three times last year’s eventual return of 0.24.
It may point to a shift in his role which reflects the evolution of the forward line. Salah is often the provider for Nunez; whereas, for much of Salah’s Anfield career, the central figure in the forward line was the false nine Roberto Firmino, now it is a target man.
That alteration is not without precedent in Liverpool history: Kenny Dalglish devoted more time in his thirties to making goals for Ian Rush. A £150m bid is, however, even for a club who managed to get £142m for Philippe Coutinho. Salah’s seeming commitment to Liverpool has also been to ‘Liverpool Reloaded’, as Jurgen Klopp has billed his attempt to build a second great team.
Coutinho financed the first, paying for Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. The Brazilian represented the greatest Moneyball deal for the sabermetrics enthusiasts in the boardroom and for Klopp, suddenly able to afford an elite defence to back up his potent attack.
Five years on, it is remarkable that both Klopp and Salah projected an air of business as usual amid a record bid; FSG may yet remember it if Salah departs on a free transfer in 2025.
For now, however, the gamble of declining a windfall – and when it was too late to spend it – is producing a footballing dividend. There may be a title challenge from Merseyside whereas, without Salah, there almost certainly would not have been. The early evidence is that Liverpool should book a return to the elite European competition; without him, that would feel in greater doubt but Champions League revenues would provide FSG with a different kind of compensation.
Then there is the symbolic significance of an icon. Liverpool’s self-esteem was not dented by the loss of Henderson and Fabinho; it would have been by selling Salah. And the admiring glances are not merely directed towards Merseyside from Saudi Arabia: Germany’s recent interest in Klopp was rebuffed, with the manager evidently enjoying leading this rebooted, rejuvenated side, to seeing where they can go and what they can do. Perhaps some of his remaining ambitions can be realised at Anfield; that would have felt less possible without Salah. His departure could have been an admission of defeat, in effect the end of the Klopp golden age. Factor everything in and there looks a rationality to rejecting £150m.