The Mo Salah Contract Debate
Three Sundays ago, the best two teams in the Premier League dueled in a battle for temporary supremacy. The whole world witnessed Mohamed Salah score one of the sickest goals you’ll ever see in a football match. The skills he displayed to get past multiple defenders were unlike anything I’ve ever seen on display at Anfield before. I sprained my ankle twice just watching it. Eight of the eleven Manchester City players on the pitch had a chance to stop that ball from going in the net, and they were helpless to do so. It was magnificent. It belongs in a frame hanging in the Louvre. The result wasn’t what we were hoping for, but that goal helped make me appreciate the greatness of this Liverpool squad. And how great Mohamed Salah truly has become as a Liverpool player.
Immediately following that match, the global reaction was phenomenal. It was as though the world suddenly discovered what Liverpool fans have known for years. That Mo Salah is a pretty good player. The media acted like a movie character played by Timothy Busfield, sitting in the stands after his niece’s life gets saved by the ghost of a minor league baseball player that somehow unclogs a hot dog from the little girl’s windpipe. They collectively glanced around as if he was a new signing never seen before, wondering aloud, “when did he get here?” (Side note: if you don’t get that movie reference then I can’t help you). Almost overnight the consensus question broadcast across the globe was: “Has Mohamed Salah leapfrogged above Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the planet’s greatest footballer alive?” The next logical question predictably dealt with his current contract status. Why haven’t the owners locked down his services for the foreseeable future with a new deal? “Pay the man what he is worth!” was the demand that dominated my social media newsfeed last week. It got me wondering how people assume they are savvy with the business side of football, and then I realize how little they actually know. Or more appropriately, how little they want to know.
Before I proceed, I want to give credit where it is due. A few years ago, I heard Daniel Geey being interviewed on a football podcast where he discussed his newly-published book entitled “Done Deal – An Insider’s Guide to Football Contracts, Multi-Million Pound Transfers, and Premier League Big Business.” Before the interview had concluded, I had placed my order for his book. It’s an extremely well-written look into the business side of football, and it helps that the author is a Liverpool supporter providing a perspective that we can all appreciate. I found it to be extremely educational and believe that it should be required reading for every fan that chooses to bitch about the perceived personnel failings of their club. I couldn’t recommend it more.
Now let’s try to take a closer look at Salah’s current contract saga and make some sense of it. The consensus belief is that he currently makes about £200K per week, which until this most recent summer made him the highest-paid player on Liverpool’s roster. Then Virgil van Dijk signed a new 4-year deal before this season started, giving him a handsome raise to £220K per week usurping Salah on the club’s payment perch. Thiago is also rumored to have the same wages as Salah after agreeing to join the club last summer. The biggest difference between what Salah makes versus Virgil and Thiago is timing. Salah agreed to his current salary back in July 2018, not within the last twelve months. Much has been said how Salah’s current contract will expire in June 2023, and every Liverpool supporter should be concerned if he doesn’t sign a new agreement before the start of next season. Rightfully so. Even though it’s not a rule, players in their prime who enter the final year of their contract without getting a new deal often move to a new club. But why is that? Each situation will differ, but the basic answer is that the player’s agents truly believe they can get their clients a better deal than what the current regime offers. It’s that simple. Forget loyalty. Forget convenience. If the club doesn’t give the player what he wants, then it’s in their rights to seek those desires elsewhere after the contract expires. Players that choose club loyalty over personal gain tend not to wait until the last minute to extend their contract.
Let’s consider the case of Gini Wijnaldum, a fine player who recently left the club when his contract expired. The Dutch striker has been in the news this past week, with a story circulating about how he’s “not completely happy” at PSG. At the end of the term of his initial contract with Liverpool, Wijnaldum was reportedly making close to £100K per week. He was 30 years old as rumors persisted that he was looking for more than a two-year deal. At that age, it is likely that the value of the next contract would be the most lucrative of his career. Except that contract needed to be for more than two years in order to maximize his value. Liverpool needed to be concerned about the long-term expected performance for a player that missed only eleven Premier League matches in six seasons. Would his engine be as effective at the age of 33 as it was in the last few seasons? For the club it came down to risk versus reward. In the case of Gini, the risk of committing significant long-term revenue was too great for the reward of what he would provide near the end of the contract. Surely Wijnaldum was getting told, through his agent and advisors, that he could do much better elsewhere. They were right. According to Fabrizio Romano, Wijnaldum ultimately signed a three-year deal with the French side until 2024 and will earn £8.6M annually… after tax. That’s a sizeable raise probably doubling his previous take-home check. It’s an increase that Liverpool were clearly unwilling to meet.
Now he’s not happy with the situation he’s in, and no Liverpool fan seems to care. Some laugh publicly, while others pull out the “you asked for it” card. Personally, I don’t begrudge any player for doing what he believes is best for his family. If I were offered double my current pay to relocate and work for my employer’s competitor, I’d surely think long and hard about it. As Michael Corleone says in the Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Most supporters have difficulty making that separation, but it’s the truth in professional sports. No one could’ve predicted that not long after pen was put to paper on his PSG deal that one of the greatest players of our generation would suddenly become available. The acquisition of Lionel Messi by PSG would adversely affect playing time in the midfield. It might not have factored into his decision when Wijnaldum signed, but I’m guessing he looked at the PSG depth chart at the time thinking he’d get more than his fair share of minutes. Maybe things would look differently had Messi signed before Gini. Surely a contract offer for the Dutchman might not have been as lucrative if PSG had already landed Messi.
One final point about Wijnaldum before moving on. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to a Liverpool player. The last significant player to leave on a free transfer under Klopp was midfielder Emre Can. It was speculated that the German knew what the open market would bear for his services after his Liverpool career ended. He was only 24 years old at the time his contract expired, and we can only speculate as to the specific reasons why he left Liverpool. On June 21, 2018 he signed a four-year deal with Juventus. I’m sure Can was optimistic about his potential minutes when he signed for them, and who wouldn’t look forward to living in Italy? It must’ve been a sobering shock when only three weeks later the other greatest player of our generation became available. That’s when Juventus would sign Cristiano Ronaldo, which surely diminished the temperature of Can’s welcome at the club. Ironic how Liverpool have let two workhorse midfielders leave for greener pastures on free transfers, only for those players to quickly learn exactly why those pastures are so green. When you can afford to add some of the greatest talents the sport has ever witnessed and improve your chances for silverware, you don’t hesitate. It’s not personal, lads. It’s just business.
That brings me to the current situation with Mohamed Salah, the greatest player I have ever seen play live for Liverpool Football Club. The man is pure genius on the pitch, and in my opinion the greatest player on the planet. His current contract expires at the end of 2023, and everyone knows it. Including his agent and his potential suitors. I’ve seen numerous comments about how FSG need to “pay him what he’s worth.” I find that statement somewhat comical. Who determines exactly what he is worth? FC Barcelona thought Lionel Messi was worth €555,237,619 over four seasons back when he signed his 2017 contract with the club (as revealed by Spanish newspaper El Mundo earlier this year). How did that work out for them? They finished third in last season’s La Liga table, cleaned house, and now sit ninth in the current table. And Messi plays for PSG now. I’d say “paying him what he was worth” didn’t work out for Barcelona. Salah should be worth the most wages that Liverpool can afford to pay without sacrificing the integrity of the roster. But can the club afford to offer him what other state-funded clubs might? Will he give Liverpool some form of loyalty discount? Those are the questions that need to be answered.
Earlier I mentioned the integrity of the roster, so let’s glance at that for now. In addition to extending Virgil van Dijk’s contract earlier this summer, Liverpool also extended the deals for Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, and Jordan Henderson. With the possible exception of our captain, those players likely earned significant pay raises when they signed. Looking ahead, the club must be concerned with the next crop of potential free agents whose contracts also expire in 2023. I’m talking about Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. You can’t argue the importance these two players bring to our attack. They will be aged 31 and 32 respectively when their contract expires, so we know that this will be their last chance to cash in with a lucrative deal. How much of a collective increase to the wage rate can the club afford? How long of a commitment will they be willing to offer? Much like what happened with Wijnaldum, the advisors for Roberto Firmino know that future contracts will diminish in value the older he gets. Can he afford to accept only a two-year extension, knowing that any offer made to a 34-year old striker will be far inferior? The club has a serious situation to consider when the three top attackers all seem to have contracts expiring at the same time. All have deserved hikes in pay, but exactly how big remains to be seen.
To complicate matters even further, we need to consider the addition of yet another state-owned club getting into the sweepstakes. When Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was allowed to grab the majority share of Newcastle United Football Club, it added another layer of complexity to the equation. They will be looking to make an immediate impact, and they are surely eyeing all available assets. Much like when the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City in 2008, wallets are expected to open to improve the roster of a club that struggles to avoid relegation annually. City eventually won the Premier League in only four seasons with a serious squad overhaul, and Newcastle is targeting the same results with a similar plan. Liverpool will certainly offer a significant pay raise to Mohamed Salah, and surely only a handful of clubs could afford to better that offer. Adding Newcastle to that shortlist of suitors only complicates the situation.
What does all of this mean for the possibility that Liverpool re-sign Salah? It’s not as simple as slapping a blank contract on the table and telling him to write whatever number he wants. There are plenty of moving parts and considerations. All indications are that Salah loves it at Liverpool Football Club. He loves playing for Jürgen Klopp. And most importantly he loves winning silverware, and goldware that comes in the shape of a boot. Much of that will disappear if he leaves the club, and his potential suitors will know that. If Salah wants to remain at Liverpool, his loyalty will come with a price tag. He will be aged 31 when his current deal expires, so I’m curious at what that price tag will be. I really hope we find out when he signs that new deal for Liverpool.
Regardless of what happens, I can’t concern myself with what others think Liverpool should do. It’s not my business to tell someone else how to run theirs. Try as they might, it’s not other fans’ business either. Liverpool finally reached the pinnacle once we added the likes of Virgil and Alisson, and both of them are now inked until 2025 and 2026 respectively. Everyone knows that defense wins championships. Extending those deals already is a great indicator of the club’s statement of intent. But I also know that great defense can only get you a draw. We still need to put the ball in the back of the net, and no one on the planet does it better than Mohamed Salah. I want to see the Egyptian King wearing that Liverpool #11 shirt for the rest of his career, but if that means we can’t afford to keep the other pieces of the puzzle together then I’m not so sure I’d want that. If we stop being competitive, like when Barcelona did after overcommitting to that inflated contract with Messi, then I’m not interested. It’s not personal, it’s just business. And Liverpool need to be in the business of competing for trophies. With or without Salah.