By Hani Na’eem – @hani_eem
In a week which saw Liverpool lose to Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League and beat a struggling Fulham side in the Premier League, Xherdan Shaqiri has seen his stock rise as a potential regular starter for the Reds.
The Swiss international did not travel with the team to Belgrade courtesy of Jurgen Klopp trying to prevent any off-field drama from impacting the game or the players safety. The consequent result left a number of fans, including ones who supported the decision before the game, wondering what might have been if the midfielder had played that night.
Similarly, the game against Fulham, a game in which Shaqiri started and scored, has made hot topic of the talk of potential regular starts for the creative midfielder.
This is certainly good news for Klopp and Liverpool, who have been somewhat missing a creative force in midfield due to the long-term injury to former Arsenal man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a short spell on the sidelines for recent signing Naby Keita.
Shaqiri has made eight appearances in the Premier League so far – with five as a substitute. He nevertheless managed to be directly involved in four goals in that period, scoring two and providing the assist for a further two. Aside from that, his performances have also been regarded as very positive, with the energetic midfielder making forward runs and providing the frontline with a number of key passes – with a total of eight in the last six games.
All this, amid frequent talk of Liverpool missing Oxlade-Chamberlain and not reaching their attacking standards, could mean Klopp may mix things up slightly more than usual in upcoming fixtures.
In fact, we have already seen a shift to a 4-2-3-1 formation to incorporate Shaqiri into the team. However, a recent Blood Red podcast has seen Paul Philbin raise the point that Roberto Firmino’s contribution, ever so effective and vital last season, has been negatively affected by this change in formation.
The formation sees the Brazilian take a deeper role with Mohamed Salah moving upfront as the main forward. This, Paul argues, means Liverpool’s counter attacks are less effective giving that Firmino’s unmatched work rate is missed in the press and in transition due to his deeper role. This is certainly a good point, and it is seemingly backed by the numbers the Brazilian has this season, having scored only twice in 12 Premier League appearances so far.
With this in mind, two potential solutions arise. One would see Klopp maintain the 4-2-3-1 formation with Salah wide, Firmino up top, and Shaqiri moving into the number 10 role behind the Brazilian. In the appearances he made thus far, Shaqiri has not started in the 10 role per se, but rather he either played as part of a midfield three – in games against Leicester, Southampton, Cardiff, and Huddersfield – or wide – in recent games against Arsenal and Fulham.
Another option would see Shaqiri go back to being part of a midfield three. This option would retain the usual front three of Mane, Salah, and Firmino, and it will remain to be seen then if the Swiss star can replicate what Oxlade-Chamberlain offered for this Liverpool team before his injury.
Of course, Shaqiri playing in midfield also means more selection headache, since both James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum have produced impressive performances so far, while Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita also have points to prove coming from spells on the sidelines.
With upcoming away matches to Watford and Paris Saint Germain and a busy festive fixture list, Klopp could definitely use these options and rest players while doing so, but the promising displays put in by Xherdan Shaqiri and the unquestionable impact of Roberto Firmino on how the team wants to play mean they are both difficult to leave out.
Ultimately, it will be up to Jurgen Klopp to find the perfect balance when all are fit and available.