Mo Salah absence presents Harvey Elliott big chance to stake right-wing claim

Mohamed Salah could be unavailable for Liverpool until mid-February as he leads his country at the Africa Cup of Nations, and it opens the doors for one young Red to take his chance.

As well as dealing a blow to Liverpool, the loss of part-time winger Dominik Szoboszlai to a hamstring issue during Monday’s win over Newcastle served to prove Jurgen Klopp right.

Speaking last week, the German shared his belief that it would be unwise to get too attached to the idea of any single player replacing Salah throughout his stint at the Africa Cup of Nations, given that plans can so easily be scuppered by injuries.

And his position was instantly vindicated as one of the potential candidates to play the role of stand-in for the Reds’ star man was forced off in the final game before his departure.

But, while he may have been justifiably reluctant to mull over this decision previously, the fact that Salah has now headed out to the Ivory Coast means he can no longer avoid it.


Assessing the options

LINZ, AUSTRIA - Thursday, September 21, 2023: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) celebrates with team-mate Luis Díaz after scoring the third goal during the UEFA Europa League Group E matchday 1 game between LASK and Liverpool FC at the Raiffeisen Arena. Liverpool won 3-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Life without the influential 31-year-old begins at Arsenal on Sunday, and Liverpool’s manager better have a solution.

With Salah part of a five-man collection of forwards who have rotated regularly this season, picking out a replacement should, in theory, be straightforward.

However, there are various reasons to believe that his understudy might not actually come from that group.

For starters, of the seven games that Salah has not started this season, the now-injured Ben Doak has come in to take his place in four.

What’s more – and this is clearly a design feature of a squad built around one man – the other forwards do not feel like a particularly good fit for his position.

Luis Diaz is an out-and-out left winger, while Diogo Jota and Cody Gakpo both started in that position before going on to prove they are capable in a central role.

Darwin Nunez, meanwhile, is the opposite – a centre-forward who has occasionally been pushed out to the left across his career.

But the most crucial fact is that all are right-footed, and so would potentially unbalance a side so used to having a left footer cutting in off that right wing.

As such, it is easy to imagine that quartet will continue to battle for two starting spots on the left and through the middle, freeing up the right wing for a man who is arguably the most natural deputy in the squad: Harvey Elliott.


A deserved chance

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - Thursday, December 14, 2023: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott applauds the supporters after the UEFA Europa League Group E matchday 6 game between Royale Union Saint-Gilloise and Liverpool FC at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Union SG won 2-1. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

He may be considered a central midfielder now, but the 20-year-old made his name coming through at Fulham as a right winger cutting inside onto his favoured left foot.

And his first goal in a Liverpool shirt even came from that position, a smart finish for the under-21s in a 3-2 defeat to Oldham in the EFL Trophy back in August 2019.

Of course, Klopp has since been determined to transform him into right-sided No. 8, with countless impressive performances this season coming in that role.

However, it also feels like that reclassification has occasionally robbed him of minutes, with his diminutive stature and set-piece threat of the opposition perhaps making it far easier to throw in Ryan Gravenberch in during the latter stages of recent games.

Fortunately for Elliott, that is less of an issue when the man you are replacing is Salah, and he offered some pretty compelling evidence that he is ready to do just that in last month’s 5-1 win over West Ham.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, December 9, 2023: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott celebrates after scoring the winning second goal during the FA Premier League match between Crystal Palace FC and Liverpool FC at Selhurst Park. Liverpool won 2-1. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is interesting that, after that game, the youngster was surprisingly critical of what most observers would have described as an impressive individual performance.

He ended that 90 minutes having taken five shots and created three chances against excellent Premier League opposition, and yet his focus was on a failure to turn that threat into something more tangible.

That is an admirable mentality from a player who clearly viewed that outing as an audition but perhaps ignores the fact that, if he generates a similar amount of shots across future outings, goals are surely guaranteed.

At the very least, Elliott deserves to be given the chance to find out if that is true, and if he can ensure Liverpool do not miss one of their greatest ever players during his upcoming absence.