With Mohamed Salah spending the next few weeks at the Africa Cup of Nations, how will Liverpool manage? We look at potential solutions for the Premier League leaders.

Liverpool are top of the Premier League, through to the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup and into the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League. The sun is shining and the birds are singing at Anfield, and the only thing to bring the mood down is the sound of the plane whisking Mohamed Salah off to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Jürgen Klopp is preparing to spend the next few weeks without his star player as Salah targets revenge and AFCON glory. In 2022, Salah and the Pharaohs agonisingly lost on penalties to Senegal in the final and will be keen to rectify that in Ivory Coast.

How much will Liverpool miss Salah, though?

Well, he has 14 goals and eight assists in 20 Premier League games this season, meaning he has either scored or assisted more than half of Liverpool’s 43 league goals. He has an additional four goals in other competitions.

Salah PL xG map

Salah further proved his importance to the team with an outstanding second-half showing in Monday’s win over Newcastle United, when Liverpool accumulated the highest xG total on record in a Premier League game. The Egyptian walked away with two goals and an assist and could have had a hat-trick had he not seen a first-half penalty saved by Martin Dúbravka.

It’s not just his output; Salah is simply always there. Since his first start after returning from AFCON two years ago – a 1-0 win at Burnley – Salah has played in 72 of Liverpool’s 73 Premier League games, starting 67.

Two years ago, the same questions were being asked about Liverpool’s ability to manage without Salah during AFCON. The concern was doubled with Sadio Mané also absent during his final season at the club, but ultimately Klopp and his remaining players managed just fine. They played six games without Salah in all competitions, only failing to win their EFL Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal when they drew 0-0 at Anfield, before winning the second leg 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

They beat Shrewsbury Town and Cardiff City in the FA Cup, while sealing Premier League victories at home to Brentford and away to Crystal Palace. Salah returned from the bench in a 2-0 win over Leicester City in which Diogo Jota hit both goals.

This time, Salah could miss up to seven games, with the AFCON final taking place on 11 February, one day after Liverpool host Burnley in the Premier League. That run of fixtures includes Sunday’s FA Cup third round trip to Arsenal, both legs of their EFL Cup semi-final against Fulham and league games against Bournemouth (away), Chelsea (home), Arsenal (away) and the Clarets, as well as the FA Cup fourth round should Liverpool get past the Gunners.

If Liverpool – who will also be without Wataru Endo due to his involvement in the Asian Cup – get lucky (and Salah doesn’t) and Egypt go out in the group stage, he could be back for the Chelsea clash at the end of the month, but Klopp must plan to have him out for the duration.

So, what are his options?

Salah games missed AFCON

Harvey Elliott

As things stand, this seems like the most natural solution. Due to Salah’s importance to the team and astonishing ability to stay fit, Liverpool have never really looked to sign a like-for-like back-up for him. The closest thing they have is Elliott, who himself has had to readjust to more of a midfield role due to the fact he hasn’t been able to get a look in on the right of the attack.

Like Salah – and unlike any other senior Liverpool player who isn’t a left-back – Elliott is left footed and so would naturally bring that same balance to the attack, having a left-sided player who can drift in. He showed that to great effect with his recent goal at Crystal Palace.

He also showed his improved finishing ability in the 2-0 win at Burnley on Boxing Day with a nice first-time effort into the bottom corner, though it was ruled out due to Salah being in an offside position.

Elliott has predominantly been a substitute in the Premier League this season, starting just twice and making a further 14 appearances off the bench, but he has started 11 games overall. In fact, he has started every Europa League and EFL Cup game and his numbers have hinted at an improvement in productivity.

Elliott has just one goal and one assist from his 25 appearances this season, but only Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ryan Gravenberch and Diogo Jota have averaged more chances created from open play per 90 minutes for Liverpool than his 1.75.

On top of that, only Dominik Szoboszlai (7.3) is averaging more attacking sequence involvements per 90 than the 20-year-old (7.0) for Liverpool.

The former Fulham youngster also started on the right of the attack in Liverpool’s 5-1 demolition of West Ham in the EFL Cup quarter-finals, arguably the most fluent attacking performance from Klopp’s men this season, at least prior to the Newcastle game.

Liverpool lineup v West Ham

Speaking of youngsters, Ben Doak is out injured but Klopp could look to Kaide Gordon, who surprisingly started for Liverpool away at Arsenal in their EFL Cup semi-final second leg two years ago and also featured in other games, scoring against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup.

The 19-year-old has been injured for most of the time since then, though, only recently making another first team appearance in the Europa League group stage dead rubber at Union Saint-Gilloise. Gordon could make an appearance in one of the cup games but it would be a big ask to bring him into Premier League action after so long out.

Dominik Szoboszlai

This could be an option that is taken off the table before Klopp has a chance to consider it. Szoboszlai came off holding his hamstring in the win over Newcastle, and Klopp confirmed on Friday that he will at the very least miss the FA Cup clash with Arsenal and the EFL Cup semi-final first leg against Fulham. However, if he returns after that then the Hungarian could be a serious possibility to fill in for Salah.

Szoboszlai has played in midfield since arriving from RB Leipzig in the summer, predominantly on the right of a three and just to the left of Salah. However, he mostly featured on the right of the attack for Leipzig last season, albeit in a different formation.

Szoboszlai position map 22-23

It would take some adjustment for him and for Liverpool having a right-footed player out there. His first Premier League goal against Aston Villa earlier this season showed he can use his left, but he certainly prefers his right. Szoboszlai could potentially play the role similarly to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he filled in for Salah two years ago. Oxlade-Chamberlain – now at Besiktas – scored against both Brentford and Palace when he stepped up, and Szoboszlai has shown he can also find the net, having done so four times in all competitions this season.

As mentioned, he is averaging the most attacking sequence involvements per 90 for his new team, while only Salah (83) and Darwin Núñez (80) have attempted more shots.

Liverpool attacking sequence involvement all comps 23-24

Move Another Forward Player

On paper, Liverpool have a plethora of other forward options. So, you would think Klopp would just move one of them over to the right.

Well, probably not. None of Jota, Cody Gakpo, Luis Díaz or Núñez have much, if any, history of playing on the right. Obviously, Salah has had the position locked down in recent years, but even when looking at the position map for each of them in their last full season before joining Liverpool, only Gakpo played any time at all on the right of the attack, and that was for just 4% of PSV’s 2021-22 Eredivisie campaign.

Cody Gakpo position map 21-22

All of them are also right footed, and on the rare occasions the likes of Díaz and Jota have played out there for Liverpool, they haven’t looked particularly comfortable. The latter could possibly adjust to it as he is proficient with both feet, but Klopp would probably be taking his next best finisher away from positions where he’s likely to score. Of Jota’s 36 Premier League goals since joining Liverpool, 11 have been with his left foot and 17 with his right, while only one of those goals came from a position outside the right-hand post.

Diogo Jota goal map Liverpool PL

However, positionally is not the only way they can help to replace Salah. It seems unlikely that Elliott or Szoboszlai would entirely replace the Egyptian’s goals, and so others will need to step up and find the net more often.

Jota is Liverpool’s second-top scorer in all competitions with nine goals and actually has the best shot conversion of anyone at the club (25.7%) this season. He has also scored five of his eight big chances (62.5%), so seems the likeliest candidate to give Liverpool the goals they will undoubtedly miss from Salah, who has a shot conversion of 21.7% (18 goals from 83 shots) and scored 15 of his 26 big chances (57.7%).

Núñez is continuing to hint at producing a glut of goals but needs to improve his finishing as the Uruguayan is getting almost as many chances as Salah. However, he has scored just eight times from 80 shots (10% conversion rate) and has found the net from only five of his 29 big chances (17.2%). He is a provider though, matching Salah and Alexander-Arnold with eight assists, but only one of those has been for a player other than Salah, when he gave Szoboszlai the pass to score at Sheffield United.

Gakpo (eight goals from 45 shots – 17.8%) and Díaz (five goals from 40 shots – 12.5%) could also get more involved given the likely change of attacking emphasis which, up until now, has largely been to get the ball to Salah.

Liverpool forward finishing stats

Trent Alexander-Arnold

It wouldn’t be a Liverpool article without suggesting Klopp does something a bit mad with Trent Alexander-Arnold.

This is very much an outside shout as it’s unlikely the manager would move him, not least because the England international is thriving at right-back with a licence to drift into midfield. Also, with Andrew Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas out injured Klopp is having to play his back-up right-back, Joe Gomez, on the left for the time being.

However, in theory, you can see a world where pushing Alexander-Arnold further up the pitch might work.

Only four players have created more chances in the Premier League this season than his 49, while for Liverpool in all competitions, only Salah (52) has created more chances from open play than his 38. Only Salah, Gakpo, Szoboszlai, Díaz, Núñez and Elliott have attempted more shots than his 35.

Then you have the fact that, after Salah, Alexander-Arnold is probably the Liverpool player who gives opposition players the most pre-game butterflies. The amount of attention defenders would need to give him to keep him quiet would likely lead to extra space for others, as Salah’s presence so often does.

Alexander-Arnold is getting into more threatening attacking areas now that he is able to maraud into midfield, but he could get closer still if he was starting on the right of the attack, while his world-class crossing ability could be put to use even more if his teammates can regularly find him out there.

It would undoubtedly take away from the space he has to work in, though, and therefore, likely impact his influence on games. As you can see from the respective touch zones, Alexander-Arnold is able to use much more of the pitch where he is now compared to Salah, who so often works in very tight spaces.

TAA touch map
Salah touch map

Then again, if Alexander-Arnold is in those positions, it might give Liverpool’s vice-captain more opportunities to attempt ludicrous things like the below effort against Newcastle.

Whatever Klopp decides to do, he will hope he can have as much joy during this Salah-less period as he did two years ago. The time is now for others to step up to the Egyptian King’s throne.

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