Virgil van Dijk arced with ‘The Walk of Champions’ wall and looked up at the ‘This is Anfield’ sign as he exited the tunnel and entered the pitch on Saturday afternoon. He had pictured himself doing exactly the same routine for months, albeit as a Liverpool player, and had pushed for as much too.
Jurgen Klopp, stationed just off the Netherlands international during the warm-up, was willing to make him the world’s most expensive defender this past summer, but Southampton refused to entertain any offers never mind sanction a sale despite receiving a transfer request from the centre-back.
The failure to recruit Van Dijk had been the underlining narrative of the window for Liverpool and clouded the start of 2017-18, but against Mauricio Pellegrino’s men, Mohamed Salah again illustrated why the emphasis should’ve been on the major business the club did do, rather who they missed out on.
On June 22, an initial £36.9 million deal with Roma for the Egypt international was completed, and given his explosive impact during his debut campaign on Merseyside, it is not too early to categorise that transaction as the best of the season.
Salah supplied two goals at Anfield on Saturday, two against West Ham in the fixture prior to the FIFA break, eight in his last six games and 14 in total across all competitions. All of this in just 18 appearances. And all of this playing on the right of the front three.
He is the top scorer in the division and has recorded nine league strikes for Liverpool faster than Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez.
Salah has already bettered Sadio Mane’s entire total for last season and is en route to becoming the first Reds player to hit 20-plus since Daniel Sturridge and the Uruguayan both managed the feat during the spellbinding 2013-14 season.
The 25-year-old’s swift, differential start has been unsurprising to the club’s recruitment team, and sporting director Michael Edwards in particular, who pushed for his addition to the squad.
They were confident Salah’s direct, aggressive style would reduce the dependancy on Mane as an outlet, supplement the talents of the attacking unit and elevate the manager’s fluid, full-throttle blueprint.
Klopp initially had designs on signing Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt as his primary wide option, but the German youngster did not want to move and risk his playing time diminishing. The 21-year-old knew he was not ready to command a place in Liverpool’s frontline, while Salah has galvanised it.
“We watched Salah so often, saw him so often,” the Reds boss revealed in July. “The scouting department was really behind me, and wanted to do it even earlier so that nobody could jump in!
“We were sure he can help us. Michael Edwards, Dave Fallows and Barry [Hunter], they were really in my ear and were on it: ‘Come on, come on, Mo Salah, he’s the solution!’
“When you have 20 players on the table, different players, it’s difficult to make an early decision, but we all were convinced about it so we could make the early decision so we could really get him. He’s a fantastic person, a nice lad and a really good football player.”
Salah, like several of his team-mates, is nowhere close to his ceiling which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
It is a message Klopp has been eager to underscore and one Mane shared with Goal, saying: “There is so much more still to come from him.”
There was further evidence of his advancement against Southampton – a side Liverpool failed to score against in four attempts last season.
For the opener, Salah delivered a curling beauty into the far corner from 20 yards out after Roberto Firmino dispossessed Dusan Tadic and Gini Wijnaldum spread the ball to him.
“It was not a real chance from there I would say,” Klopp noted post-match. “It was a fantastic goal.”
If the first was a snapshot of Salah’s expert finishing ability, in which he prioritised technique and placement over power, the second highlighted his intelligent movement.
Philippe Coutinho received possession from Jordan Henderson and spotted Salah’s crafty run behind Wesley Hoedt, slipping the ball into space for the winger to exploit.
The Egyptian planted a first-time hit past Fraser Forster, and still not satisfied, was slightly annoyed to be taken off – to a standing ovation and his name being chanted – with 10 minutes to spare as he chased a hat-trick.
That kind of attitude will be applauded at Melwood and cause alarm in the rest of England’s top flight.
Four years may have passed since Liverpool first opened talks with Salah over moving to Anfield, but time has only solidified his status as the perfect player for the club.