Mohamed Salah seemed to let out a smile as he made his way from the Fiorentina bench. He was about to enter the fray at San Siro, replacing an injured Khouma Babacar just before the halfway point in an evenly contested clash with Inter Milan.
The Egyptian forward had every reason to espouse happiness ahead of his latest appearance in Viola purple. He has settled almost instantaneously since his move to Firenze.
Fiorentina have been magnificent of late. Indeed, only Juventus and Torino can claim to have better form in Serie A. This form has not wavered even since the departure of Juan Cuadrado; arguably their best player at the time, and unarguably their most sought-after asset.
Cuadrado took full advantage of Colombia’s World Cup run last summer, impressing in front of sport’s largest audience with his vivid runs and creative zest. Such performances led to him being coveted by a variety of Europe’s top club sides, including Barcelona. He remained in Italy for the time being but come January he decided to venture to London, beginning a new phase in his ascendant career with Chelsea.
Chelsea paid around £23 million for Cuadrado, though perhaps the most important aspect of the deal was Salah’s moving the other way. Since the swap took place Fiorentina have not lost a single game in domestic or continental competition, and Salah has more than played his part. It can even be said, albeit in hushed tones given he is still in the formative stages of his time with the club, that Salah is better for Fiorentina than Cuadrado.
Fiorentina’s resurgence in recent months has had a lot to do with the promulgation of a 3-4-1-2 formation. In this setup, Cuadrado was often deployed as a second striker, in behind Mario Gomez.
In many ways he, along with playmaker Matias Fernandez, was responsible for threading Fiorentina’s midfield and attack together. This position granted the Colombian licence to roam but it was not his favoured role; he prefers to play on the right wing.
Salah fits this role, and this system, better than Cuadrado. Although he too is primarily a winger, Salah’s versatility sees him thrive in a greater variety of attacking positions. As such, he has found a comforting home in the freedom of the support striker role since moving to Fiorentina.
Salah uses this freedom to hunt the ball in almost all areas of the pitch, seeking opportunities to start attacking moves, find space and drive at opposition defences. His penchant for wandering is embraced in this newfound position, his curiosity encouraged.
His lateral movement is a constant thorn for opposition players who cannot fathom where he will turn up next. Right, left or centre, Salah wants to make things happen, and his elusiveness has a tendency to terrify.
Whereas Cuadrado is more at home on the outside cutting in, Salah enjoys being in the thick of it with the possibility of drifting out. It can also be said that Salah is a more incisive runner than Cuadrado, whose flair is a joy to watch but lacks the sense of purpose embodied by Salah’s movements.
The first of Salah’s double in Fiorentina’s 2-1 Coppa Italia win over Juventus on Thursday evening was the epitome of this as he drove at the Juve defence before slotting home.
Statistical comparisons between the pair suggest there is substance behind the argument that Salah is stylistically a better fit for Fiorentina. Cuadrado scored four goals in 17 league appearances this season, while Salah has scored three in four, with all bar one of those appearances coming from the bench. In Europe Salah has one in two. It took Cuadrado five games to register the same tally.
Neither can claim any assists in European competition for Fiorentina this season, but Salah’s one in four games in the league gives him a marginally better average than Cuadrado’s four in 17. According to WhoScored.com, on average Cuadrado made just over 40 passes per game in Serie A this campaign, which is almost double Salah’s respective figure.
However, of those passes, just 2.1 of them were defined as ‘key’. Salah may make less passes per game, but on average he makes 2.5 ‘key’ passes per game. His pass success percentages are also higher in both Serie A and the Europa League.
These statistics suggest Salah is more of a danger for Fiorentina than Cuadrado was. There is, however, a more holistic picture to be painted. Before we begin to admonish Chelsea for their enthusiasm in bundling Salah out the door it must be stated that Cuadrado is a good signing for the English Premier League leaders.
As a fast and inventive winger, he will be at home in a Chelsea system that makes full use of such players. Unlike much of his final half-season with Fiorentina, he will not be a square peg in a round hole at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea prefer a 4-3-3 cum 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 format that will allow Cuadrado to resume his favoured wide position, where his skill-set is best utilised.
It is also worth taking into account that the formational changes made by Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella may have negatively impacted Cuadrado’s form this season. He scored and set up less than expected, but that may have had something to do with uncertainty surrounding where he was playing from one week to the next as the team’s setup was chopped and changed.
Uncertainty may also have been borne out of the intense transfer speculation that followed Cuadrado around last summer. Having watched his Colombian team-mate James Rodriguez complete a big-money move to Real Madrid, Cuadrado’s mind may not have been entirely in Florence as the summer transfer window slammed shut.
Salah’s sensational form since his move to Fiorentina can also be scrutinised. He has made just four starts, meaning that while the aforementioned statistical comparisons between he and Cuadrado are valid, his numbers come from a much smaller sample and are thus subject to temporary circumstances.
It is entirely plausible that Salah’s form will level out as his time with the club continues. He is after all still in the honeymoon phase of his move to Italy, and it will be a while before he does or does not settle in.
The early signs cannot be ignored, however, and those signs are positive for Salah and Fiorentina. Just one month into his loan spell the club are already rumoured to be seriously considering extending his stay with the genuine possibility of a permanent move in future.
Even if Salah is not a better outright player than Cuadrado at this moment he is four years younger, more suited to the second striker role; and will likely cost a lot less with a reported £12 million buy-out clause that could ensure Fiorentina make a tidy profit on the exchange, giving them money to spend on other areas of the team.
Fiorentina will thus have benefited financially from the swap deal without seriously, if at all, compromising the quality of the team, but this transfer isn’t all about them.
Salah was snared by Chelsea from under the nose of Liverpool last January but he was given little exposure by the club. Within a year he went from one of the most intriguing talents in European football to a makeweight squad member.
Now, in Florence, he is beginning to flourish under Montella’s watchful eye. The goals have flowed and his sense of importance is returning. No wonder he’s smiling.