The Egypt international has had a strong start to his career at Anfield but will need to take on even more responsibility for as long as the Senegalese is sidelined.
The first battle took place on the Anfield pitch, where Liverpool and Manchester United played out a goalless draw last Saturday. The second one followed in the press room, as both managers attempted to convince the public that their interpretation of the game was the correct one.
“You could not play this way at Liverpool but it is OK for Manchester United,” Jurgen Klopp told reporters, criticising his opposite number’s cautious tactics. “I thought we were worthy of three points. There were a lot of good individual performances. But when an opponent has this kind of defensive approach you will not create 20 chances.”
“One thing is an entertaining game for fans, another thing is an entertaining game for people who read football in a different way,” Mourinho hit back.
“For me, the second half was a bit of chess but my opponent did not open the door for me to win the game. We came for three [points], but in the second half it was difficult to do that with the dynamic as it was. I was waiting for Jurgen to change and go more attacking but he kept the three strong midfielders at all times.
“I was waiting for him to give me more space to counter but he did not give me that. So I know that probably you think we were defensive and they were offensive – well, you [Liverpool] are at home and you do not move anything. I don’t know why. I was waiting for that and he did not do it.”
Both bosses had a point, although it was clear that Mourinho went to Anfield with the intention of avoiding defeat. The Portuguese’s plan ultimately came off, but things could have been different had Liverpool converted one of their chances, the best of which fell to Emre Can in the second half. In terms of the player who looked most likely to carve open the United defence, though, Mohamed Salah was the hosts’ danger man.
The Egyptian has had a strange start to his Liverpool career since moving to Merseyside from Roma for £36.9m in the summer transfer window. He has certainly not required a bedding-in period, scoring four Premier League goals and providing an assist in his eight appearances up to now, yet Salah has also been a little wasteful at times and could easily have boosted his figures further.
Overall, though, Klopp and Liverpool supporters will be pleased with the impact he has made. Salah’s electric pace, mazy dribbling and fantastic footwork almost unlocked the door for the Reds against bitter rivals United, particularly in the first half. A point at home to a title challenger is far from an awful result in the grand scheme of things, but the Reds must now build on that in the weeks to come – starting with Sunday’s tricky trip to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur.
It is the type of match in which Liverpool will again look to Salah for inspiration, particularly as fellow forward Sadio Mane remains sidelined with a hamstring problem. Klopp’s side really missed the Senegal international when he was missing either through injury or Africa Cup of Nations duty last term; it is no coincidence that Liverpool’s downturn in form began when Mane was taking part in the continental competition in Gabon in January. With the team built to press high up the pitch and transition quickly into attack, the absence of the direct and speedy Mane significantly harmed Liverpool’s output going forward.
The signing of Salah, who spent a year on Chelsea’s books earlier in his career, was made to mitigate the risks of the Merseysiders’ overreliance on Mane. In an ideal world the pair would both feature in the same starting frontline, but the addition of the Egyptian meant – in theory – Liverpool would be able to play the same way with or without the former Southampton flier.
With Mane ruled out of action for at least a month, that theory will soon be put to the test. Liverpool, of course, possess plenty of other talented attacking options, including Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, but Salah’s qualities may be the ones they need most in upcoming meetings with Spurs, Huddersfield Town, Maribor, West Ham United and Southampton.
“I can never say a fee like this was cheap. But he’s a very good player, one we were convinced about. That’s why we did it,” Klopp said last month.
“You could see in the first game at Watford, it [the Premier League style] was quite difficult. It was really physical and maybe a few people had doubts and thought it would be difficult for him.
“But he played better than anyone could have imagined. He was at Chelsea, but he was a kid there. Now he’s much more mature and everything is better.”
If Salah is able to make the difference in Liverpool’s showdown with Tottenham this weekend, he will have provided more evidence in support of that last statement.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.