The team Jurgen Klopp named to face Lyon in Geneva on Wednesday evening was interesting for a number of reasons.
Not only were Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker given also starts much quicker than anticipated following their return to pre-season from their extended, post-international tournament breaks, but the midfield selection and composition was also a talking point.
Klopp elected to select Adam Lallana as the deepest midfielder, a role he has been learning on the fly this summer, and pair Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri as the twin number 8’s ahead of the England international.
Shaqiri’s selection in central midfield was especially interesting. Normally a right-sided winger, the Swiss international impressed in the engine room berth, linking play well and having the ambition to play between the lines.
As much as the former Stoke City man playing as the advanced central midfielder may have surprised, it is not the first time he has played in a similar role.
For the Swiss national team, Shaqiri, who has amassed over 80 caps for the Rossocrociati, is the attacking fulcrum and he invariably plays in a free role off a lone striker. Pigeonholed often as “just” a winger, the £13.5M signing from Stoke City has a much more varied skillset than given credit for. Last season,
Shaqiri was particularly effective in being a conduit for Mohamed Salah when the Egyptian moved to the centre forward role. The former Roma man scored 14 goals in 14 appearances, with Shaqiri playing off the right-hand side in the 4231 shape.
The muscle-bound winger has seen action for Liverpool in the number ten/advanced midfield role in the past, most notably against Southampton in the Premier League in September 2018. Despite finishing the games with two assists, Shaqiri was substituted at half-time with Klopp intimating that defensively the former Basel and Bayern Munich flyer left the Reds exposed.
“Usually I don’t explain substitutions at half-time but I thought it made sense. It’s just good to have him; the free-kick was outstanding. That’s good. The whole team was not used to what we did today. As a new player, usually you struggle most but he didn’t – he tried everything. The only problem was defensive. Offensively, it was a good idea but, how I said, we have to work on that more often. But he was good and I liked it”, Klopp explained.
Last season, Liverpool’s interior midfielders, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Naby Keita, was tasked with providing defensive coverage for the Reds’ marauding full-backs, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
However, Klopp’s insistence on a safety-first midfield may have thawed slightly, if you take his comments on integrating Adam Lallana into the number 6 role at face value. The German admitted that he would only play the former Southampton captain at the base of midfield in a very “dominant” game; the type of games Liverpool invariably have at Anfield.
“But Adam is a midfielder through and through and he is an outstanding player. Outstanding players, you always try to find the best position on the pitch and in some games it’s possible the best position for Adam Lallana is the No.6. It must be a very dominant game, by the way, but he can play that”, Klopp said.
The same can apply to Shaqiri and a key difference between now and the Southampton game where he suffered the ignominy of being hooked at half-time is the establishment of Fabinho in the team. Having a shielding midfielder of the Brazilian’s dominance, tactical awareness and quality can mitigate for any of the defensive acumen that Shaqiri lacks.
Under the proviso that the player nicknamed “the Power Cube” would only play in games that Liverpool dominate, where the opposition’s reticence to attack the European Champions — based off the fear of being incinerated in transition — vicariously does the Reds’ defending for them, playing Shaqiri in a midfield three is less risky.
Klopp has shown in the past that he is quite adept at moulding attacking midfielders into deeper role, and Shaqiri could follow in the footsteps of Ilkay Gundogan at Dortmund and Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain at Liverpool.
From an attacking perspective, Shaqiri — who scored six goals and assisted three times in only 11 starts last season — could add a new facet to the Reds’ attack and midfield.
A left-footed midfield option is something Liverpool lack and the Swiss international could tick that box. As Oxlade Chamberlain proved on the right-hand side pre-injury, a player comfortable in the half-spaces adds an extra layer to Liverpool’s already deadly attacking weaponry.
The former Arsenal winger revelled in the right-hand side half-space from January to April 2018, benefiting from the space given to him by the movements of Salah. Similarly, Shaqiri can mirror this on the left-hand side with Sadio Mane.
With the narrowness of Liverpool’s front three, having a player like Shaqiri, well accustomed to playing in wider areas from playing as a winger for the majority of his career, could be crucial to opening up and distorting opposition defensive shapes.
With his strong left foot, the two times Champions League winner could provide extra width on the left-hand side of the midfield three and perhaps provide overloads in wider areas with Robertson, mitigating for the central positioning of the attacking trident.
In the shape of Shaqiri, Liverpool may have found a points and win yielding player in their midfield without having to dip into the transfer market.