When Shaqiri first signed for Liverpool, there were plenty of sceptics. After all, this was a player notably lethargic out of possession, disinterested in tracking back and doing his defensive duties. Among those to voice their concerns was Gary Neville, who said that the Swiss international epitomised the unprofessional nature of Stoke City in 2017/18.
He’ll frustrate you, standing on the halfway line while the opposition attack, they said. He won’t work in Klopp’s gegenpressing system, they said. He’s not cut out to be in a top-six side, they said.
They were wrong.
Far from the apathetic, defensively suspect individual many feared, Shaqiri has taken like a duck takes to water, registering one goal and three assists in nine games thus far while showing a fierce desire to regain possession at every opportunity and get back on the front foot.
His first start in the 3-0 win against Southampton back in September showed initial signs he’d fit in. Albeit taken off after forty-five minutes to add more balance to the midfield, Shaqiri made a prominent impact, winning possession back before playing a simple pass in the build-up to Firmino’s opening goal.
Cast your minds back, and you’ll also remember his sumptuous free-kick that, had it not cannoned off the underside of the bar, would’ve been a sure-fire bet for the goal of the season even at this early stage. Instead, Salah was able to tap home, and the points were sealed.
Since then, the Swiss international has gone from strength to strength, putting in a series of palatial performances in the last week that are bearing fruit for the Reds.
A “genius” as described by his manager, the 27-year-old was the talisman in Liverpool’s 4-0 Champions League rout against Red Star Belgrade, dazzling spectators with two top draw assists. First, a 20-yard sprint to regain possession before driving forward with the ball, picking a perfectly weighted, eye of the needle passes in behind for Andy Robertson.
Work rate, vision, delivery, it was spot on.
Then, the most ingenious of touches for Mo Salah. On the stretch and with his weaker foot to boot, Shaqiri would produce an intricate volleyed touch into the path of the Egyptian for his 49th goal in 65 games for the club.
Four days earlier, the two had combined in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield Town with a slide-rule pass carving through the opposition defence to retain what’s been an impressive start in the Premier League.
Saturday’s game against Cardiff was the latest example of the creativity and ingenuity Shaqiri has brought to the table. Introduced in place of a visibly exhausted Adam Lallana just after the hour mark, he played an integral role in ensuring Liverpool saw out the three points despite a late Cardiff goal.
The tempo of the game, which had markedly dropped in the second-half, was set alight by his brilliant first touch, taking Salah’s pass straight into his path before sending the defender the wrong way and slotting into the bottom corner. His first goal for the club, the £13m signing displayed a level of skill and composure far beyond his price tag.
A feature of the season thus far has been the lack of drive and creativity within the midfield unit – two traits Oxlade-Chamberlain epitomised last season.
Naby Keita, who remains unavailable through injury, is yet to acclimatise to his new surroundings and has thus failed to show the surging runs that became such customary viewing in the Bundesliga while none of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner naturally possess such a trait and are therefore unable to do so on a consistent basis.
However, if recent performances are anything to go by, Xherdan Shaqiri could be the answer for Klopp; albeit largely utilised out wide, drifting into the midfield in spells, the 27-year-old’s vision and aggression make him a useful asset. Indeed, there are no more qualms over his ability to make a difference in this Liverpool team, with the consensus now that he’s been one of the best pieces of summer business.
Shaqiri’s inclusion in the side has added flexibility within the system similar to what we saw last season; Mane can drift from one flank, popping up in the middle and opposite side of the pitch while Firmino was dropping deeper and allowing Salah to play through the centre against Cardiff.
Such unpredictability and fluidity in attack is what made Liverpool such an attacking force last season, and with a pivotal game against Arsenal coming up, the Swiss man will undoubtedly be in Klopp’s mind. As good as the Gunners have been, Crystal Palace exposed their weaknesses in defence, winning a penalty in each half to reflect their lack of composure. Thus, Shaqiri’s movement and eye for a pass could be key in ensuring the Reds maintain their unbeaten start to the season and continue pace with the current Champions.
Klopp was right when he described a summer move for Shaqiri as a no-brainer. Although some have taken longer to convince than others, the former-Stoke City man has come into his own, endearing himself to fans with a series of scintillating performances.