Despite being less experienced than Mata, Mohamed Salah can provide a different kind of threat
Mohammed Salah is set to become a Chelsea player in the coming days. The stamford bridge side have become used to the site of Salah celebrating against them.
The irrepressible Egyptian was the reason Chelsea lost to Basel home and away in the Champions League; scoring three goals in the process.
They definitely took notice!
The Egyptian arrives at the club via Swiss Super League champions Basel, where he has impressed more in European competition than domestically. Last season, for example, he recorded more assists in 14 Europa League outings than he did in 29 league matches – and there is a sense in some quarters that he would have benefited from more time in Switzerland to develop and taper some of his unpredictable rawness.
Defensively, as well, Salah offers plenty and that could be one of the main reasons Mourinho opted to sign him. He showed time and time again with Basel that he is capable of tracking back and retaining possession, which the Chelsea boss, of course, absolutely demands from his midfield players.
Ironically, just as Salah impressed Chelsea by putting them to the sword, it was a goalscoring display in an Egypt Under-23 friendly at the Stadion Rankhof against Basel that convinced the side to sign him. He was invited to train with the Swiss side and signed shortly afterwards.
It would have been rather different had Zamalek SC president Mamdouh Abbas recognised Salah’s talent. The Egyptian giants, notorious for preventing their players from moving to Europe, had been linked with the devilishly quick winger but eventually decided against a deal.
In a strange quirk of fate, Salah now has the opportunity to establish himself on the grandest of stages in a way that former Egyptian poster-boy Mido, once of Tottenham and Roma, could never quite do. The 30-year-old, who failed to live up to his enormous promise, is now the coach of Zamalek – and how he must crave a player of Salah’s finesse and trickery.
The immediate task facing Salah at Stamford Bridge will be replacing Juan Mata – who is expected to join Manchester United imminently. Previously, those would have been rather large boots to fill – but perhaps not any more.
The Spaniard has been ousted from the first team under Jose Mourinho, relegated to the bench, and has produced just a miserable two assists in 11 Premier League appearances.
Salah should not expect to immediately cement a place in the first team but there is a sense that he offers certain qualities that Mata, and Chelsea, have lacked. He is quicker than any player the Blues boast in their frontline and, as Petr Cech will attest, has a knack for preying on the last man, darting in behind defences and finishing with aplomb.
The former El Mokawloon winger, who won the Most Promising African Talent of the Year award in 2012, may not be as established or influential as Mata, but he brings a different, much-needed skillset to the club. Indeed, the best squads are not comprised of simply the best players but instead offer variation and options – and in this respect Salah could be even more valuable than the man he will replace.
He’s a natural wideman, unlike so many of Chelsea’s attackers, capable of playing on either flank, and his pace will terrorise tired defences on the counterattack. That speed and directness makes him a perfect weapon off the bench in a side that has occasionally required a spark of invention and je ne sais quoi.
Mata’s looming departure was brought about by a lack of suitability to Mourinho’s high-pressing style of play yet Salah feels a much more natural fit to that defensive tempo and application.
While the 21-year-old might have preferred the freedom Brendan Rodgers’ expressive style would have afforded him at Anfield, he certainly won’t be at odds with Chelsea’s philosophy. Coming up against more established sides in Europe, he has been asked by manager Murat Yakin to track back, work hard and absorb pressure.
In fact, only two outfield players (Shakhtar’s Darijo Srna and Porto’s Fernando) have recovered possession more times in the Champions League this season than Salah’s tally of 44. Meanwhile, no Chelsea attacker has recorded more interceptions than Salah’s six, while only Oscar (12) has more tackles than the Egyptian (7) – Mata, as testament to his lack of suitability, has zero.
Salah, then, is an entirely different type of threat to what Chelsea currently have at their disposal, though he is also a good fit for the style of play promoted and demanded by Mourinho. The west Londoners may be losing a two-time Player of the Season but, in Salah, they’ll have an explosive, frighteningly quick replacement. And one that could have a big role to play in the title race.