For the eagle-eyed viewers who watched Liverpool take on PSG in their Champions League encounter back in September, two substitutes who came on in the second half shared an unlikely link.
It is doubtful that Xherdan Shaqiri and Eric Choupo-Moting thought they would play with or against each other again after spending the previous season with relegated Stoke City, but just a few months later they were fighting it out for two of Europe’s best sides in the world’s premier club competition.
Whilst Choupo-Moting has been limited to a string of substitute appearances for the French giants, it is Shaqiri who has had the biggest impact at their respective clubs. After taking a while to find his feet, the Swiss international’s Liverpool career has taken off in the past few weeks.
Despite being considered a useful impact substitute on his arrival, Shaqiri has established himself as almost indispensable in Jurgen Klopp’s new 4-2-3-1 system. With Liverpool’s much-fabled front three not quite hitting the heights of last year, the introduction of Shaqiri in this new formation seems to have particularly reinvigorated the fortunes of Mo Salah. In the four games in which both have started, Salah has scored five goals. Without Shaqiri alongside him, the Egyptian has found the back of the net just three times in nine games. With Salah moving into the middle of the front three and Roberto Firmino playing in behind, Shaqiri has filled the position on the right wing vacated by Salah to great effect.
There were a number of critics who were unsure about the transfer, given Shaqiri’s supposed lack of suitability to the Liverpool system. Klopp demands a lot of pressing and tracking back from all of his forward players, and the likes of Gary Neville and former teammate Charlie Adam questioned Shaqiri’s ability to do so. Neville labeled him as “unprofessional” and Adam felt that although Shaqiri was a top player, he “never turned up”. Despite this criticism, the 27-year-old has already come on leaps and bounds under Klopp’s stewardship, and the player who sometimes “went missing” at Stoke has started to show the form of a player with ten domestic titles and a Champions League winners’ medal to his name.
Liverpool’s lack of midfield creativity has been their main problem this season, despite their unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign. Whilst the likes of Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and James Milner have all impressed, none of them offer much service to Liverpool’s attacking trident. The new 4-2-3-1 formation is far more fluid than the previous 4-3-3 which was utilised by Klopp as it allows Liverpool’s attackers to move freely around the pitch.
Whilst Shaqiri has the license to cut in from the right onto his wicked left foot, he also can roam in midfield, with Salah pushing out wide. This unpredictability is what could aid Liverpool in breaking down superior opposition. Against the likes of Napoli, Manchester City and most recently Red Star Belgrade, the Reds struggled to create any real chances at all. Their play was well-anticipated by their opponents, who knew they simply had to man-mark Liverpool’s front three in order to deny them goalscoring opportunities.
However, in Shaqiri, the Merseysiders have the solution that the Anfield faithful have been crying out for. Creativity? Check. Good movement? Check. Can pass and shoot? Check. Footballing talent? In abundance.
He was criticised at Basel and Stoke for being too selfish and for knowing he was the best player in the team. Yet at Liverpool, Shaqiri knows that he isn’t the top dog anymore. Expectations are far higher, from both the fans and his fellow teammates and coaches alike. Not only does he need to perform to maintain his place in the side, but finally he is surrounded by players that match his ability. This is what brings the best out of truly top players.
Because for all the doubts over Xherdan Shaqiri, what is undeniable is his outstanding ability with the ball at his feet. His knack for the spectacular and his unpredictable, maverick style means that for all his supposed shortcomings as a football, of which there are very few, Liverpool may have just unearthed the bargain of the season in their quest for the Premier League title.