Mohamed Salah’s AFCON Absence Will Be Liverpool’s Biggest Test
2:19 PM EST on January 3, 2024
Whenever Mohamed Salah scores a goal, I think of Billy Idol. Specifically, I think of "Rebel Yell." For years now, I will sing (and sometimes post) the chorus line: "In the midnight hour, she cried Mo Mo Mo." It's fun and stupid, but also a little misleading. With Salah on the field, Liverpool only rarely leaves things to be decided in the midnight hour. The Reds' New Year's Day match against Newcastle was a great example: Even after missing a penalty and generally not playing up to his otherworldly level in the first 45 minutes, Salah showed up early and often in the second half, scoring the opener, assisting the game-winner, and putting away the clinching late goal in the 4-2 victory.
But while Salah is almost always there where Liverpool needs him most, that will soon not be true, and how the Pool Boys weather the next month will decide whether their current place at the top of the Premier League is sustainable. That's because Salah is leaving the club to participate in the confusingly dated 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. (It was supposed to take place last summer to so as to not overlap the European club season, but got moved due to concerns about the summer heat in hosting Ivory Coast. The 2023 in the name stuck due to sponsorship reasons.) The tournament runs from January 13 to February 11, and Egypt is among the favorites to win, which means that at the very least, Salah should be on assignment for a big chunk of that month.
That's bad news for Liverpool because the club's attack is Mo Salah right now. For the 2023-24 season, Salah has 14 goals and eight assists in the Premier League, adding another three goals in three Europa League appearances. The domestic stats are good enough for a tie for first in both goals and assists. Salah is good for creating or scoring more than one goal per match, and Liverpool has needed that almost every match in a season where its spot atop the league somewhat flatters to deceive.
For the season, Salah has four multi-goal matches, including Monday's against Newcastle, where he bounced back from the missed penalty in the first half to score Liverpool's first in the 49th minute, and then fixed his penalty error with another one in the 86th, just five minutes after Newcastle had gotten the game back to 3-2 in favor of the Reds. He also assisted Cody Gakpo's technical game-winner in the 78th with a gorgeous line-breaking curved ball that left even the Dutchman confused at how open he was.
It's really the playmaking that Liverpool should miss more than the goals, as strange as that may sound. With him on the right wing, the game opens up for his fellow attackers. As an example, Darwin Núñez is feasting on chances, and only some less-than-stellar finishing that keeps him at five goals for the season. Salah has assisted a plethora of Liverpool players so far, ranging from Núñez and Gakpo to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Harvey Elliott, and even Wataru Endo, the center midfielder who is also leaving the club this month, for the Asian Cup. No matter who is in a good position to score, Salah finds them, and Liverpool will have to figure out how to replicate that while the Egyptian is away.
If there is one stroke of good fortune for Liverpool, it's that there are not that many Premier League matches in the upcoming month. Between now and Salah's most likely return—February 17, away at Brentford—there are only four league fixtures on the docket: Bournemouth away, Chelsea at home, Arsenal away, and Burnley at home. Sprinkled in between those EPL matches are some big cup ties: the Reds take on Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup this upcoming Saturday, and will face Fulham in the two-legged semifinals of the League Cup on Jan. 10 and 24. It's a busy month, but if the club's priority is to lift its second Premier League title since 1990, and its first in a non-COVID-afflicted season, then the league matches matter most, and Salah's absence should only be felt four times.
Still, what an absence it will be. Whether he's scoring game-winners or blow-out makers or ever-important clawback equalizers, like he did against Crystal Palace in early December, Salah has been the engine of second-highest scoring offense in the Premier League, with Liverpool's 43 goals trailing only Manchester City's 45. Salah has contributed 22 of those, so he's quite literally more than half of Liverpool's attack. In his stead, look for Liverpool to lean on Alexander-Arnold on that same right side, and Dominik Szoboszlai down the middle of the park.
Regardless of what Jürgen Klopp comes up with to compensate, though, missing Salah will make Liverpool a far less dangerous team, and something like seven points from four matches would likely be considered a huge success, even in the meat grinder at the top of the league, where the top five are separated by only six points. If the club can remain somewhere near that top spot by the time Salah returns, it's hard to bet against its ascendancy and Salah's form continuing as it has been. Even at the ripe old age of 31, Salah is still the best player in England and the one who makes Liverpool so scary to play against.