Liverpool can thrive in Mohamed Salah’s absence with a timely return and a lesson from the past

A title race is being stripped of its most potent players. Erling Haaland has been the most recognisable spectator at Manchester City’s recent matches. The injured Norwegian still leads the race for the Golden Boot. But the man tied in second is also joint-top of the assists table. Coupled with his outstanding form, it gives Mohamed Salah a case to be named the footballer of the first half of the season. Liverpool top the table after 19 games. Salah will depart after their 20th, going to the Africa Cup of Nations following Monday’s match against Newcastle. He could be away for more than a month, a spell that includes trips to Arsenal in both the FA Cup and the Premier League, along with twin legs of the Carabao Cup semi-final. The danger is that Liverpool fail on three fronts without their most feared forward. But Jurgen Klopp has a can-do mentality, an encouraging precedent from the past and an attack that received different kinds of scoring boosts at Burnley on Boxing Day. Darwin Nunez ended his 12-game goal drought at Turf Moor. Diogo Jota struck on his return from injury, a comeback after a month out that was sooner than Klopp expected. “The return of each of the boys is super-important but Diogo especially,” the manager said. He will have to improvise and adapt now. Beyond assembling a five-strong group of high-calibre attackers, there was no strategy he could put in place to cover for Salah’s absence. “Each long-term plan I could have had depends massively on who is available so why should I think in October who I can use when Mo is away when I have no clue who is available?” Klopp said. “We would have solutions today; I hope we have that after the Newcastle game as well.”

The Costs of an Injury

An injury would come at a greater cost if Salah is absent for six weeks. “Everybody was quite positive about our five options but I don’t think we had it that often,” said Klopp: Jota and Cody Gakpo have been sidelined, Luis Diaz has missed games for personal reasons and only Salah and Nunez have been available throughout. “Especially with the amount of games we play, it is so important these boys can rotate,” Klopp said.

Jota’s Role in the Absence of Salah

Salah’s status as a fixture means the other four have tended to alternate for the roles in the middle and on the left. None of the other four, by preference, is a right winger; those duties could go to Diaz unless Harvey Elliott, who has spent much of his season in midfield but excelled as a winger in last week’s 5-1 thrashing of West Ham, operates further forward.

The Importance of Diogo Jota

In another respect, Jota can assume a particular pertinence as Liverpool look for a replacement to Salah. The Portuguese is the second top scorer and the only one of the forwards with a better chance conversion rate than the Egyptian. Of the quintet, they are the only two who have outperformed their expected goals. Jota could assume the duties as the finisher in chief for the next few weeks.