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Mohamed Salah can spearhead Liverpool’s new era but the jury is out on Darwin Nunez

Mohamed Salah can spearhead Liverpool's new era but the jury is out on Darwin Nunez

In the aftermath of a particularly demoralising defeat, former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier once appealed to the Kop with the observation: “We don’t destroy our heroes today when we worshipped them yesterday.”

Jurgen Klopp may share the sentiment following the Merseyside derby. A team chasing a quadruple a few weeks ago now finds itself the subject of brutal reassessment. Were they ever that good? Is another midfield reboot required alongside a few centre-backs and a new front three?

Liverpool’s title quest has fizzled out for a number of reasons, including the inability to keep a clean sheet and over-reliance on Alexis Mac Allister to multi-task and carry the midfield. The most obvious regression is the team which has scored over 100 goals started missing chances. Not any chances. Easy chances. One-on-ones with goalkeepers, five-versus-two counter attacks, and snapshots in the six-yard boxes that were met with panic rather than clinical composure. The contamination which began at Old Trafford has poisoned every performance since.

Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez, who bailed their team out by inspiring a couple of smash-and-grabs earlier in the season, have misfired at the most inopportune moment. In keeping with the standards set at a club of Liverpool’s stature, the backlash post-Goodison Park was fierce and emotional.

Criticism of Salah, especially, reflects the fickleness of the age. The Egyptian has fallen below his standards since his return from African Cup of Nations duty, his pace, touch and ice-coldness in the penalty area deserting him.

Such is Salah’s legend, the hamstring injury he suffered at AFCON must be considered a mitigating factor. Salah began this season as good as ever, justifying Liverpool’s stance in 2023 that not even a bid of £150 million from the Saudi Pro League would seduce them to sell.

Before January, Salah scored 14 goals in 20 Premier League goals, in his usual position as a Golden Boot contender and emerging as a leader as likely to assist as be the matchwinner.

His goals and assists per minute have significantly dropped in 2024, as has his shot conversion rate. There are no public indications the injury is still troubling him, but the idea his legs have gone mid-season is far-fetched.

There are some players who only play when 100 percent fit. Throughout his career, Salah has only sat out matches when 100 percent injured, and even then he may have needed convincing his body could not cope.

Mohamed Salah can spearhead Liverpool's new era but the jury is out on Darwin Nunez
Mohamed Salah's form this year has been below its usual high standards - PA/Peter Byrne

For Nunez, there is no such credit in the bank. For two seasons every positive contribution has been latched upon as evidence a top class striker is emerging, while every miss has been viewed by sceptics that rather than sign the next Fernando Torres, Liverpool paid £85 million for another Djibril Cisse – an occasional scorer of brilliant goals rather than a brilliant goalscorer. Increasingly, Nunez is looking more like the latter.

When Klopp leaves this summer, Nunez loses his biggest ally. Incoming FSG football supremo Michael Edwards and Sporting Director Richard Hughes are entitled to look coldly upon the Uruguayan’s contribution knowing he was not signed on their watch. Suspicions have long circulated that had Edwards not left in the summer of 2022, there would have been a robust internal debate as to whether so much should have been invested in a striker who looked like a work in progress from his first training session.

There has been plenty of goodwill for Nunez, time being his ally until the consequential performances against Manchester United and Everton. Patience is afforded when missing chances in routine home wins, less so when they cost points and, ultimately, trophies.

Hughes and the new manager must decide if Nunez is truly a gem that can be polished, or if market forces will enable Liverpool to recoup funds and buy an already perfectly cut replacement.

Nunez has much to prove

Many will say there is a similar decision to be made on Salah if the Saudis call again. Like Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, his contract runs out in the summer of 2025.

The idea of Liverpool saying ‘thanks very much for your legendary work, Mo, but we’d quite like that £100 million now’ is as optimistic and simplistic as it is disrespectful to a player suffering a rare dip.

Whatever Liverpool’s intentions with Salah, it is also no longer their decision to make. Salah holds the aces should he fancy another crack at Champions League football and prefer to increase his signing on fee in the event of an eventual free transfer a year from now.

If he stays put, it would be no surprise if Salah remains the greatest goal threat for the next Liverpool manager. There may be tough deliberations ahead, but his Anfield immortality is non-negotiable.

Salah has absolutely nothing to prove. Two years on, the same cannot be said of Nunez.

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