Xherdan Shaqiri opted out of international duty with Switzerland in September, with his decision to spend the break at Melwood likely to benefit Liverpool.
The Swiss FA announced that Shaqiri had pulled out of contention for this month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar to “focus fully on his club.”
Despite this statement, there remained ambiguity over the winger’s motivation, with Granit Xhaka inferring that it was, instead, due to him taking the armband from the injured Stephan Lichtsteiner and not the Reds’ No. 23.
Switzerland officials are due to meet the 27-year-old in an effort to convince him to return for the October break, with director Pierluigi Tami aiming to “support him and try to understand what is causing him discomfort.”
But the official line remains that Shaqiri decided to miss relatively comfortable clashes—which resulted in a 1-1 draw and 4-0 win respectively—in order to fight for his place at Liverpool.
This came after a slow end to last season and start to the new campaign for Shaqiri—who has played just 16 minutes in 2019/20 so far, including in the Community Shield.
Part of the reasoning for this is due to a calf injury picked up in Switzerland’s UEFA Nations League clash with England in June.
Of course, this reinforces his argument for withdrawing this time out, but in the final four months of 2018/19 he also only played 171 minutes.
The second half of his maiden season with the Reds saw him assume a fringe role, and speaking to Langenthaler Tagblatt in August he said “it’s clear that I want more time,” adding that he would have to “find a solution.”
An expectedly knee-jerk reaction to this was that Shaqiri could push for a move away from Liverpool before the end of the European transfer window on September 2—but he appears to have opted for a more rational, admirable avenue.
Shaqiri was among a small group of senior players to report back for first-team training at Melwood on Monday, as Jurgen Klopp began practical preparations for the visit of Newcastle on Saturday.
He joined the likes of Adrian, Joel Matip, James Milner and Adam Lallana, along with, crucially for the Reds, both Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who were given a reprieve as neither Senegal or Egypt had fixtures scheduled this month.
Though those first-choice forwards were present, and well-rested after a week off, their fellow starter Roberto Firmino and more importantly Shaqiri’s fellow backups Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Divock Origi and Rhian Brewster were absent.
That 17 senior players spent the international break away Merseyside have will sparked a familiar frustration for Klopp, as this fortnight precedes the busiest period of the season.
Liverpool play five games in the final two weeks of September alone, and are set to play twice a week for the majority of the campaign from now, and will need a bigger squad than in August.
“The first four weeks of the season, that’s how it is. That’s probably the hardest period for players who are not [starting].
“He had an injury, [then went] to Evian as well, like Naby did. Naby got a re-injury, thank god Shaq didn’t get that. That’s the only situation.
“In training, Shaq doesn’t have to improve in any way, he can keep the level he is doing in the moment. It’s not about that.
“Of course he can improve, how everybody can improve, but it’s not about that, he doesn’t have to show anything special.
“And we will need him, he knows that, 100 percent.
“Is he the happiest player in the squad at the moment? I don’t think so. Can I see that on the training pitch? No.
“He’s in a good mood, training hard, doing what he has to do and is ready for the moment when he has to help the team on the pitch.”
This notion of being “ready for the moment” may be needed as early as Saturday, when Newcastle arrive at Anfield for a lunchtime kickoff.
Firmino started both of Brazil’s friendlies in the US in the September break, playing 83 minutes in the 2-2 draw with Colombia on Saturday and 63 in the early hours of Wednesday morning, before flying back to Liverpool from Los Angeles.
The No. 9 has more often than not been one of the last players back from international duty throughout Klopp’s reign so far, though it is difficult to predict the approach the manager will take.
While he started the first game back this time last year, playing 74 minutes and scoring in the 2-1 win at Tottenham, Klopp afforded him just 13 minutes of the 1-0 win at Huddersfield in October.
That victory at the John Smith’s Stadium could serve as inspiration if Klopp shakes things up directly after this month’s break, with a change in formation and the introduction of Shaqiri.
It wasn’t his first start of the season, nor the first experiment with the Swiss as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, but it did lead to an extended run with the new-look system.
Klopp has never fully trusted Shaqiri in the central role, likely due to his lack of defensive instincts when compared to his other options, but the system endured with him out wide when Liverpool needed to rotate throughout the winter.
The manager stuck with the 4-2-3-1 for most of Liverpool’s fixtures between that trip to Huddersfield and the end of January last season, and it coincided with Shaqiri’s only prolonged run in the side last term.
Shaqiri certainly isn’t a like-for-like swap for any of Klopp’s regular starting forwards—and particularly not for Firmino—but his staying at Melwood could provide a solution in a congested period.
It was not likely by chance, for example, that Salah stayed on the field and shifted up front as Mane and Firmino made way for Shaqiri and Origi at Burnley last time out.
If Klopp is planning to begin rotating now, deploying the Egyptian up front as with last season, Shaqiri provides readymade cover on the right.
Able to focus on tactical work at Melwood this week, this could be something Klopp focused on with Salah, Mane and Shaqiri all present.
Newcastle may be the perfect opportunity to ease this setup back in, with Steve Bruce’s side struggling for cohesion so far and heading into weekend with just one win in their first four games in the Premier League.
In the long term, Shaqiri is never likely to supplant any of Firmino, Salah or Mane as first choice, as is the case with Origi and Brewster.
But after being patient in the first weeks of the season, this may be his time to step up and be ready for the moment.