Xherdan Shaqiri is enjoying an unlikely renaissance in the early months of Liverpool’s season, and the Swiss midfielder could prove to be a valuable option moving forward.
Almost a year-and-a-half; 540 days. Shaqiri must have wondered if he would ever follow up his influential last Champions League start for the Reds, in that fateful comeback against Barcelona, with another.
But 540 days later it came, with the 29-year-old lining up alongside Takumi Minamino, Diogo Jota and Divock Origi in the 2-0 win over Midtjylland.
That it came in a different role to that night at Anfield – this time as part of a midfield three – is significant, as it highlights a change that has made Shaqiri a viable option for Jurgen Klopp once again.
There were indications at the start of last season that the No. 23 could change his position, with Klopp describing him as a “real option” in midfield after a bright cameo in the closing stages of the 3-1 win at home to Newcastle last season.
The manager said it was a role he had been “training for a couple of weeks now,” but beyond another seven-minute outing as a playmaker in the Champions League three days later, he did not play there again in 2019/20.
While rumours abound over quite why he was sidelined for much of the campaign, the official line is that Shaqiri struggled with a persistent calf injury.
He ended the campaign having made 11 appearances, totalling 263 minutes, with his most notable contributions being a goal in the 5-2 thrashing of Everton at Anfield and an impressive display against Monterrey in the Club World Cup.
A summer exit seemed likely, and Roma, CSKA Moscow, Sevilla and Newcastle were all linked, but Shaqiri still started and scored a stunning free-kick in this season’s 7-2 win over Lincoln in the League Cup.
Omission from the squad for the following clash with Arsenal, amid approaches from the Bundesliga and Serie A, suggested the end of his time on Merseyside.
But opting to stay and fight for his place, Shaqiri has fought himself back into contention for a rotational role under Klopp.
His start against Midtjylland may be the most substantial so far, but perhaps the most significant was how Klopp turned to the Swiss as replacement for Roberto Firmino, an hour into the 1-1 draw at Man City.
Firmino is undergoing something of an identity crisis at present, desperately searching for the form that made him undroppable, but while his withdrawal was inevitable, Shaqiri was far from the obvious choice to take his place.
The manager overlooked Naby Keita and Curtis Jones and sent on a player who had not been trusted to start a ‘big six’ Premier League game since the 5-1 win over Arsenal in December 2018.
That was during Shaqiri’s first and only extended run in the starting lineup, and it appears unlikely still that he will be able to reclaim that role, given the form of Diogo Jota.
But his displays so far this season suggest he can be a regular option once more; as hackneyed as the cliche is, he could prove to be like a new signing for Liverpool.
Shaqiri’s technical ability is undoubted, and his two key contributions so far have highlighted the quality he can offer from midfield.
His deft pass through the defence for Trent Alexander-Arnold led to Jota’s opener against Midtjylland, before he effectively replayed the same ball, this time directly to the Portuguese, for the winner against West Ham four days later.
See through the eyes of @XS_11official as he finds @DiogoJota18 for yesterday's winner ?
A brilliant and unique angle ? pic.twitter.com/4jIgQfVjPS
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 1, 2020
In terms of laying on perfect through balls, Shaqiri is arguably the best Liverpool have had since Philippe Coutinho, but the biggest issue when it came to the Swiss and a prominent role in the side was his application off the ball.
That is magnified tenfold when taking up a role in Klopp’s midfield, and fortunately, the early signs are that Shaqiri is willing to get his head down and work for the team, too.
Although admittedly a small sample size, in his two Premier League outings so far, he has attempted six pressures – according to FBref the “number of times applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying or releasing the ball” – and been successful with four, for a success rate of 66.7 percent or one every 12.8 minutes.
In his seven league games in 2019/20, Shaqiri attempted 39 pressures and was successful with 12 (30.8%; one every 15.1 mins), and across his 24 league appearances in 2018/19 he attempted 213 and was successful with 55 (25.8; one every 19.2 mins).
If he is able to maintain this rate and further learn the intricacies of the midfield role within Klopp’s 4-3-3, in terms of shape, movement and when and when not to press, he could cement himself as a regular in the matchday squad.
The beauty of Shaqiri, of course, is his versatility, and the manager embraced this as he discussed his situation recently.
“Shaq can play on the wing, he has everything for that, but he’s a creative player,” he explained.
“He played for Switzerland in the No. 10 and they know a lot about football there, so they wouldn’t bring him there if they think he’s better in another position.
“Shaq is a versatile offensive player, he’s played for us obviously in the No. 8, the wing and now No. 10 when he came on. That’s all the positions he can play.”
This has seen Shaqiri named in the Reds’ matchday squad for each of the last six games, featuring in four of those, and his presence has kept both Origi and Minamino out at times.
It can be argued that the Swiss is now ahead of both in the pecking order, and that given his recent contributions this is deservedly so.
Fighting for a place in Klopp’s attack may prove difficult, but his ability to play in midfield and the prospect of Mohamed Salah missing games due to his COVID-19 diagnosis could boost his chances of selection.
And it is a situation that must be embraced, by not only the player and his manager, but also those competing with Shaqiri, as he is proof that it is possible to return from the wilderness.
So if Klopp needs to shake up the dynamic in his midfield three, add another dimension in his new 4-2-3-1, or even a challenger for the likes of Jota and the hit-and-miss Firmino, it would now be no surprise to see him restore his faith in Shaqiri.