Jurgen Klopp can excel at the upbeat. He often finds a phrase to praise a player and suit a moment. When Mohamed Salah signed his new contract on Friday, Klopp declared: “It’s his club now.” Hyperbole? Perhaps, and not just because of the manager’s own importance of him.
But Salah is the best paid player in Liverpool’s history. As he is staying for three more years, he could cement legendary status. He has 156 goals now: carry on at his current rate and that could take him to around 250, behind only Ian Rush and Roger Hunt.
It is the Egyptian’s club in another respect. He has seemed first among equals in a famous forward line for five seasons. Now a trio who dovetailed beautifully find themselves in very different positions. Sadio Mane is starting life at Bayern Munich; a flagship signing in Bavaria, the Senegalese, unlike Salah, rejected a new contract at Anfield.
Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino looks Liverpool’s fifth-choice attacker. The definitive Klopp player has been shunted down the pecking order: first by Diogo Jota, the seeming back-up who broke into the team at times, then by the arrivals of Luis Diaz and now Darwin Nunez.
Klopp could have a second outstanding forward line at Anfield, with Salah the only survivor from the original trio. He could span eras, whereas Mane and Firmino helped define one.
The Community Shield should be the Egyptian’s first game for Liverpool in his thirties. His physique remains formidable and his form, at least until the African Cup of Nations, was arguably the finest of his career. Klopp said on Friday he believes Salah’s best years are ahead of him. I have voiced similar sentiments about Mane in February. It is harder to say the same of Firmino.
There are times when it seems the Brazilian has run himself into the ground. Certainly, his output has diminished: from a freakish, given his overall contribution, 27 goals in 2017/18, to just nine and 11 in the last two seasons, from 34 Premier League starts in 2019/20 to just ten last season.
A third 30-year-old, a third whose deal at Anfield was due to expire in 2023, his contractual limbo was overshadowed by Salah and Mane’s: they seemed more significant in the future and they would represent a greater financial loss if they were to leave on a free transfer. They felt the priority in talks.
If Liverpool finished the Champions League final with questions shrouding a host of players, answers have been supplied about the futures of James Milner, Mane and Salah. Now Naby Keita and Firmino represent the most pressing issues. There is a theory Liverpool will use Nunez’s arrival to switch to 4-2-3-1, borrowing from Firmino’s occasional role of him as a No10.
Perhaps he will be reinvented as a super-sub, using his energy at the end of the games, rather than the start. Maybe, though, the process of phasing him out has begun.
As it is, an astonishingly prolific trio have been broken up. Salah can remain Liverpool’s Egyptian King but Mane abdicated his throne from him. Firmino may have swapped his for the bench.
Between them, they scored 374 goals for Liverpool, all under Klopp. The first time they played together, at Watford in 2017, they all scored. The 15th and last match when all three found the net was also at Vicarage Road, in October.
In that first season, following Salah’s arrival, they got 91 goals between them. Then it was 69, 57, 60 and 65 (perhaps perversely, the lowest number actually came in the season Liverpool won the Premier League). The inverted nature of the forward line, with Firmino often foraging deeper, meant both wingers outscored him in each of the last four campaigns and Salah in all five.
Mane left with 120 goals. Firmino is on 98, his journey towards a century a stuttering affair amid injuries, spells as a substitute and his declining output. A triple-pronged threat was a reason for Liverpool’s success and it felt symbolic that Mane scored in their first Champions League final under Klopp, Salah in the second and Firmino in the Club World Cup final.
Arguably the idiosyncratic Brazilian was the most significant tactically. Mane was both a catalyst and, famously, Jamie Carragher’s favourite. Salah has been the most prolific and the most predatory, as well as one who gravitated to a higher level: it was uncontroversial when, last week, Klopp called him one of the best players in the world.
Each has been a seminal player in Liverpool’s success. And yet Salah’s contract extension, coupled with Mane’s departure and Firmino’s diminishing status, opens up the possibility that not only will he form a second famous triple act, possibly with Diaz and Nunez, but that he could finish his Liverpool career with more goals to his name than his two original sidekicks mustered between them.
And, integral as each has been, it would suggest history’s verdict on him would be as the greatest of the three.