Cut-price Shaqiri proving the difference at Liverpool
It was one of the more under-the-radar purchases of the offseason, coming late on a Friday when soccer fans around the globe were eagerly anticipating the World Cup final between France and Croatia two days later.
Liverpool was signing a back-up midfielder for 13 million pounds (then $17.2 million), and it went largely unnoticed at the time.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s cut-price arrival at Anfield from relegated Stoke in July could, however, prove to be a masterstroke — an astute piece of business that might yet be a key factor in Liverpool’s bid to capture a first English league title since 1990.
In Shaqiri, Liverpool now has the creative attacking midfielder it has been lacking since selling Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for 160 million euros (then $192 million) in January. Coutinho is at another level to Shaqiri, as their respective price tags suggest, but that won’t concern Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp.
Klopp’s selective use of the Switzerland international has been telling in the early part of this season, which Liverpool has started better than any previous Premier League campaign.
The German coach has stuck with a hard-working midfield three for Liverpool’s tougher games, a nod to the 4-3-3 system the team deployed in the second half of last season during its march to the Champions League final.
Shaqiri has begun on the bench in those games, and instead been utilized more from the start in matches where Liverpool comes up against packed opposition defenses and needs more vision from deep.
In the past three weeks — amid a benign run of fixtures for Klopp’s side — Shaqiri has set up the winner for Mohamed Salah at Huddersfield with a slide-rule pass behind the defense, scored a well-taken and importantly timed goal at home to Cardiff, and then netted Liverpool’s second goal in the 2-0 win over Fulham on Sunday.
They may appear minor contributions but shouldn’t be underestimated. Liverpool struggled against the league’s bottom three teams last season, losing at Swansea, drawing twice against West Bromwich Albion and also dropping points at home to Stoke.
Klopp’s devastating front three of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane excelled against the so-called bigger teams, who came out to play more against Liverpool and left more space behind their defense. It was in the games Liverpool was expected to win that Klopp’s team often proved to be a let-down.
That’s not the case this season, not with Shaqiri complementing the pace, movement and energy of the forward line.
Shaqiri will have to live with not playing every game. He might not even get off the bench on occasions.
He might finish the season with a Premier League winner’s medal, though.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80