For all the media commentary that Mohamed Salah would start the season exhausted, that did not ring true in his first “competitive” game back as the Egyptian, four weeks after his Africa Cup of Nations involvement ended, gave an influential display in last Sunday’s Community Shield. His performance was lauded but Salah playing well is nothing new – doing so through the prism of playing for much of the off-season is.
Having been eliminated with Egypt on the sixth of July, Salah was given 22 days of holiday before returning to join Liverpool’s training camp in France on the 29th. After just two days of training, he played 45 minutes in the friendly against Lyon and then started the Community Shield four days later.
Many armchair fans will tell you that Salah “earns a lot of money, so should be able to play three times a week” but a high bank balance does not change human physiology. Having played a mammoth 66 games since last May 2018, according to FIFPro, including 56 for Liverpool and 10 for Egypt, many have questioned whether his early-season form could match his relatively poor start last season where netted just three times in his first 10 games in the Premier League and Champions League.
The worldwide representative organisation for all professional footballers is advocating for greater rest periods for players and is even exploring caps on the number of games any individual can play in a season.
There were certainly no indications of fatigue for Salah against Manchester City, even with the rather large caveat of being in direct competition with Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Ukrainian may hold the honour of being victorious in 22 out of 22 games he has played in the Premier League, but he remains a midfielder who is covering at fullback.
In the opening 15 minutes alone, Salah ran diagonally off the back of him onto a Firmino pass and fired a good opening wide. Then, a simple long ball from Jordan Henderson was misjudged in the air by Zinchenko before Salah beat him for pace on the outside and fired wide again.
By full-time, Salah had struck the woodwork twice, had an effort sensationally cleared off the line by Kyle Walker, and completed the full 97 minutes and 22 seconds of game time. Statistically, he had been the best player on the pitch, at least by the very rudimentary measure that WhoScored provides. He had 10 shots at goal, hitting the target twice, and making a game-high five successful dribbles. Whilst some poor decision-making to shoot instead of pass was a regular feature, there was plenty of positive play too.
Realistically, FIFPro’s proposals for greater player welfare are not going to happen any time soon and instead Liverpool will need to manage their star Egyptian, as well as other players like Alisson, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino who were involved in off-season international tournaments.
The key is to avoid playing with fatigue. After his holiday, Salah would have lost very little fitness considering his renowned levels of professionalism. There was no Eden Hazard type weight gain during his down-time – the Belgian is said to have arrived back 7kg overweight for Real Madrid’s preseason. A three-week holiday is ideal to retain fitness, but if he had returned even one or two weeks later, he would have lost too much fitness to effect games from day one. It’s a fine balancing act.
Salah will not need any sort of traditional preseason training. High-intensity work, but no double sessions, no isolated endurance work, and rarely going into overload during football conditioning exercises will be the way to go. Managing his load and recovery at Melwood is the way to ensure he starts matches fresh and is arguably even more important than managing his minutes in competitive action.
From game-to-game, Liverpool need to avoid the accumulation of fatigue. This is essentially when recovery from one game is not complete before the next game. When this happens for several games in a row, the fatigue “accumulates” and injury risk is far greater. In the early weeks of the season, ensuring a minimum of three full rest days between games is crucial. The general guideline is a recovery day post-game, the second day off and a “restart the engine” third day. Ideally, the day before a game should be a shorter, but high intensity session to ensure players don’t start the next match slowly.
Thankfully for Liverpool, they play their opening match in the Premier League on Friday, meaning four full rest days after the Community Shield. Then, they play Chelsea in Istanbul in the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday, meaning another four full rest days, even if a four hour flight will be required for that game.
The first challenge arrives for the trip to Southampton on the 17th of August. That game comes with just two full rest days after the Chelsea game and with the travelling thrown in, there is simply no way Salah can start both in Turkey and on the South Coast. Similar concerns of Firmino and Sadio Mane exist with that tight scheduling too.
In early September, there is the first FIFA international break and with Egypt only starting Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers in November, there is every chance that Salah can be excused by his nation and have another period of rest. The same could apply to Liverpool’s other forwards who played during the summer if their nations are on the same page.
The periodisation of his star players’ training and match loads this season for Jurgen Klopp will go a huge way towards determining whether they can even challenge Manchester City again, never mind actually supplanting Pep Guardiola’s side.
Winning the Champions League means extra games with the FIFA Club World Cup in December, but getting through August is the first concern and extra days off, international breaks on a beach and other inventive solutions can all ensure Salah performs throughout the season and avoids injuries once the early weeks are taken care of.
One thing is for certain though – in Mo Salah, Liverpool have a consummate professional who takes care of his body. That will give him the best chance of another top season and continuing the form that has seen him hit 100 goal contributions (71 goals, 29 assists) in his first two campaigns on Merseyside.