“Very lively, very positive. Not only performances but in the dressing room. Everyone loves Shaq and that’s without him playing plenty of minutes. That is more my mistake than his. He’s done everything to play.”
It’s safe to say Jürgen Klopp corrected one of the few mistakes he’s made since his appointment as Liverpool manager as he unleashed Xherdan Shaqiri onto an unsuspecting Southampton side in September.
The summer signing stole the show on his first Premier League start for the Reds, putting in a performance to really hit home just how much of a bargain he was.
Although Shaqiri has this week admitted he has found life at Liverpool tough-going, there is enough to suggest the former Stoke man can contribute plenty to the Reds as they hunt down Manchester City’s Premier League crown.
In a grossly inflated transfer market, in which £30million is the new £10million, the £13.5million Liverpool parted with to sign the Switzerland international was an obscene bit of business. However, some weren’t convinced he was a good fit and he arrived on Merseyside with a point to prove.
The doubts centred around what player was arriving to play under Klopp. This wasn’t the Shaqiri courted by Europe’s biggest clubs after putting in a man-of-the-match performance for Basel against Manchester United. Nor was it the Shaqiri who looked right at home in a Bayern Munich side littered with stars.
This was a player who performed intermittently for a Stoke City side relegated from the Premier League. Yes, he had been their best player, but at times he looked disinterested and there were question marks over whether he’d fit into the high energy, chaotic and at times frenetic Liverpool system.
We aren’t even in October and those concerns have been well and truly quashed. The 26-year-old may not even have 90 minutes under his belt for the Reds yet but he’s already a firm fan favourite.
His performances in pre-season played a part, scoring an overhead kick against Manchester United is one way to endear yourself to the fans, but it was his work rate and eagerness to learn which really caught the eye. His head constantly on a pivot as he figured out where he should be and how he should angle his body to shut down the passing lanes.
Other managers would’ve given Shaqiri more playing time already. He’s experienced in the Premier League, has over 70 appearances at international level and has played in the Champions League. But Klopp isn’t like most. He likes to bed his players in so that they understand the rigours of playing in a Liverpool system.
The same thing happened with Andrew Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last season. He’s now managing Naby Keïta’s playing time while fans aren’t even sure Fabinho exists given sightings of him in red are rarer than an eclipse at this stage. But the Liverpool boss has a long-term plan.
Shaqiri was the star of the show in the opening 45 minutes against Southampton. He played a part in the opener when his cross ricocheted off two players before beating Alex McCarthy. His thunderous free-kick hit the underside of the bar and bounced kindly for Mohamed Salah to poke home. His general play was good, too, and he was a real busybody in a central area.
His numbers weren’t anything to shout about as he completed 17 of the 22 passes he attempted, one of which was a key one. But his ability to go from first to fourth gear gave the Reds something they’ve lacked in the middle third since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s debut season came to a premature end against Roma last season. A burst between the lines which unsettled the opposition and created space for teammates.
He was substituted at half-time with Klopp looking to solidify the middle third and defend the wide areas a little better. And this with the Reds looking comfortable at home and leading 3-0. The Liverpool manager isn’t often viewed as a perfectionist due to his laid-back demeanour but this substitute showed a different side to him, and perhaps why many consider this side to be genuine title contenders.
While Shaqiri isn’t yet up to Klopp’s standard, the fact the German tactician switched up his system to accommodate him shows he clearly rates his new No.23. Salah took up a central position with Roberto Firmino operating on the left and Sadio Mane on the right. The Reds looked fluid, with the attacking three and Shaqiri all able to interchange, and nearly scored a few goal of the season contenders only to be foiled by the final ball.
It was a glimpse into the future at what could be. And as a Liverpool fan it has to be exciting. It’s seven wins from seven in all competitions and that’s without Shaqiri, Keïta and Fabinho, the best part of £100million, being up to speed. The Reds have put together a special team.