Shaqiri Failing Test as Regular Starter for Liverpool
Liverpool were always going to drop points against a non-top-six side eventually, simply by the law of averages.
To have almost reached February before succumbing to one of the Premier League’s so-called ‘lesser’ outfits really is an achievement to be proud of.
Think about how long ago August was and what you were doing back then. Think about how hot it was and how hideously cold it is now – it feels like a lifetime ago.
So let’s not be overly critical, shall we?
There has been a lull in Liverpool’s performances since the turn of the year, ever since they tore Arsenal to shreds at Anfield.
Four league games have been and gone and there has not been a single wholly convincing display in that time, as well as the FA Cup exit at the hands of Wolves.
There are various reasons for this, with a number of defensive injuries making the Reds less secure than their previously unbreachable back-line.
Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold are enormous losses at the moment, with Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip accidents waiting to happen and no other fit established right-backs in the squad.
An element of tiredness has also clearly set in, although the trip to Dubai for a training camp should ease that issue in the coming weeks and months.
A key reason has been the decline of one individual in particular, whose struggles have gone largely under the radar of late.
While so much of the focus is on the defensive issues, Naby Keita’s continued malaise and the front-three’s inability to all play well in the same match (what is that all about?), Xherdan Shaqiri has dropped off greatly.
He has become an increasingly ineffective presence since his crowning moment of the season to date: the double against Man United on December 16th that gained him instant hero status.
Six weeks have passed since the Swiss scored those two deflected goals against Liverpool’s biggest rivals, at a point when he was earning endless plaudits for being one of the signings of the summer.
That tag still applies to him – let’s not be too knee-jerk and leave that to other fanbases – but Jurgen Klopp desperately needs more from the 27-year-old.
In his seven league appearances since being the star man against United, Shaqiri has managed just one goal – a stats-padding tap-in at home to Newcastle – and not a single assist.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that he has started all but two of those matches.
Those substitute appearances came in the 2-1 loss away to Man City and 4-3 victory over Crystal Palace, when he looked a threat off the bench both times.
Adopting a right-sided role in Klopp’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the five games in which Shaqiri has started have simply passed him by on the whole.
He hasn’t done a huge amount wrong, but that wand-like left foot hasn’t pulled off enough delicious passes and his jinking runs have rarely threatened to cause problems.
Shaqiri’s post-Christmas slump was summed up his forgettable performance against Leicester on Wednesday, when you could be forgiven for barely noticing him.
For someone who is famed for being such a lively, in-your-face footballer, that is not what you want to hear.
On a night when so many failed to hit their stride on a snow-covered Anfield pitch, Shaqiri was the most culpable, despite the criticism of Keita, who needs to offer more but still did a job.
Shaqiri may have enjoyed a 95 percent pass completion rate but there was nothing incisive about his use of the ball, especially given his usual creative eye.
There also wasn’t an attempt on goal or a single dribble made, while his support of auxiliary right-back Jordan Henderson was often lacking.
Ben Chilwell and Demarai Gray had a field day, especially as the minutes passed, and Shaqiri was often guilty of not tracking back.
In many ways, given the importance of the game, it was Shaqiri’s most disappointing display of his Liverpool career to date, and he was rightly substituted midway through the second-half.
The Switzerland talisman is a hugely gifted footballer, but what this form is showing is that he is at his most effective for the Reds as an impact substitute for the time being.
That’s where he did the damage when United were taken to the sword, or when he came on and thrillingly scored his first Reds goal against Cardiff City, for example.
He is a horrible person to see introduced to the fray if you are an opposition defender, when legs and minds are tiring. His quick feet and magic on the ball can cause mayhem.
Not only does he seem to play better as a substitute but it also makes Liverpool’s bench look much more formidable.
The choices at Klopp’s disposal were lacking against Leicester, and both Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge showed precisely why they will likely leave in the summer.
Neither ever looked like being the match-winner in the way Shaqiri has during his second-half cameos this season and Liverpool’s hopes of a late win petered out because of it.
Whether Klopp decides to give Shaqiri a spell out of the team could depend on whether or not he is willing to return to a 4-3-3 system.
Keita could still take up a left-sided role in a 4-2-3-1, with Mane switching to the right, but recent evidence has shown that it doesn’t get the best out of the Guinean.
Would Klopp suddenly put Mo Salah back on the right with Roberto Firmino leading the line, as was the case in 2017/18? You could understand the manager’s reluctance, given the success of the 4-2-3-1.
Whatever his decision, giving Shaqiri a breather and allowing him to wreak havoc late on in matches makes total sense for the time being.
He has failed his audition as a regular starter.