The 28-year-old’s time at the club has perhaps followed a more puzzling pattern than any other member of the current playing squad. Yet that’s certainly not to belittle his contribution.
Playing time steadily increased for him from August through to January last term but, by the end of February, he had made 26 of his 30 appearances for the season and 14 of his 15 starts.
His output of six goals and five assists in all competitions was still a respectable — and highly important — one, however. It could justifiably be claimed that he earned Jürgen Klopp’s side seven points with the nine goal contributions he provided in the league in 2018/19.
Despite all that, the sudden drop off in his game time last season was actually relatively logical. It coincided with Liverpool reverting back to their 4-3-3 formation on a virtually permanent basis, just as his input had increased when the Merseysiders began to employ 4-2-3-1 — at times morphing into 4-4-2 — more often in November, December and January.
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Shaqiri only made three of his 15 starts last term in teams playing what would be recognised as a 4-3-3 — the first coming in the 2-1 home EFL Cup defeat against Chelsea on September 26, the 1-0 league win at Huddersfield on October 20, the only one where he was part of the conventional midfield-three, in which he provided the assist for Salah’s winner.
The second came in the 4-0 Champions League semi-final second-leg victory against Barcelona, another assist in there, of course). Rotation, experimentation and necessity — in that order — can probably be seen as the reasoning behind those selections.
After the 1-1 Anfield draw with Leicester on January 30, Klopp’s men started each of their remaining 21 games in all competitions of 2018/19 in a 4-3-3, having employed a 4-2-3-1 from kick-off in 15 of their previous 20.
Shaqiri started in 11 of those 20, all matches in which the 4-2-3-1 was chosen. Almost always operating from the right side of the ‘three’, the Basel trainee was able to work inside onto his preferred left-foot, simultaneously opening up the wide-right channel for Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The double-pivot ensured this was a position that offered him a more solid base to operate in-front of than if he was part of a midfield-three. It also catered a little more for potential defensive shortcomings. While the No. 23’s work-rate appeared better than it was — and is — often given credit for, elements of the pressing approach may have understandably come less naturally to the Swiss than many of his more familiarised teammates.
By dropping back onto the right-side of what was often one of two lines of four, he effectively had less space to look after and therefore had a little more room for error. As Pepijn Lijnders appeared to reference recently, the more common 4-3-3 shape often sees the likes of the front-three aiming to occupy and influence as many as six players by blocking passing-lanes to full-backs and midfielders. The alternative formation could thus offer Shaqiri an arguably less complex starting spot.
On a personal level, it represented an ideal foundation for his creative traits. But this, of course, wasn’t only for him. While it effectively allowed a fourth conventional attacker into the team, generally alongside the regular three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, it also reduced the midfield load.
With a significant amount of work to get through, this allowed two, rather than three, midfield options to be put through the mill of 60-plus minutes in many of the games over the season’s most intense spell. This is what shuffles us into the present.
The positions in the centre of the park are the ones Klopp tends to rotate the most and this shape-based approach allowed him to make that process a little more efficient at around this time last year. Could this be a method we’re about to see replicated?
Unlike 2018/19 though, we are yet to see the Reds start in a 4-2-3-1 this term. The German boss also appeared to note recently that it was a shape that aided Fabinho at the time — another fresh arrival back then — as he had operated in a 4-4-2 at Monaco and it was not clear 12 months ago if he could successfully operate as the single-pivot ‘6’.
He has provided some pretty solid reassurance in that regard since, of course. So there are a fair few reasons to believe we may not see as much of the 4-2-3-1 — and consequently Shaqiri — as last season.
But Liverpool have still utilised it, of course, and largely to excellent effect. In the past two months it has been used in the latter stages of games against Sheffield United, RB Salzburg, Manchester United and Aston Villa, amongst others. None of those contests were being won at the time and, on each occasion the switch occurred, it has been followed by one or more crucial goals being scored without reply.
While he may not offer the pace and directness the likes of Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have when they have been introduced into such a shape, he would likely still be at the forefront of Klopp’s mind if such a scenario arises when the ex-Bayern man returns to fitness. The very fact he is left-footed means he immediately offers additional variety in attack but it could also be said that, after Firmino, he is the closest thing the Reds have to a classic between the lines playmaker. He’s another type of problem for opponents, and that can only be a good thing.
This is without even acknowledging his set-piece prowess. The fact he could offer an inswinger from the right was what allowed Origi to notch the crucial winner at Newcastle in May, for instance. He could also be justifiably credited with the first unintentional dummy walk in football history by simply wandering towards the corner flag as Trent found the Belgian in less conventional style three days later. Perhaps stretching it, but you get the gist.
There have, though, been hints that Shaqiri may soon represent a more workable option within the 4-3-3. Klopp stated in September, shortly before the Swiss’ injury issues began, that he had been training as the most advanced midfielder of the three in the weeks prior and he did indeed make two short substitute appearances in that position. First in the 3-1 home win over Newcastle on September 14 and then the 2-0 Champions League defat in Naples the following Tuesday.
This suggests Klopp may feel, with a year of training at the club under his belt, that Shaqiri is now a more workable option in such a position. It would likely maximise the regularity with which he gets on the ball and make the midfield’s output a little more unpredictable if and when required. Whether it’s a route the manager would be willing to go down from the start in some matches — or only via the bench — is as yet unclear, of course. It may be, for example, that it is reserved for games where the German feels the Reds are most likely to dominate possession.
The man signed from Stoke has also popped up in the ‘False 9’ position every now and then — primarily in friendlies, admittedly — but that is another sign that he could be an option in several areas and in both systems. The sample size for him playing on the right of the front-three may be small, for instance, but a healthy chunk of said sample is the Barça second-leg, the signs aren’t all bad.
At this moment in time, Shaqiri feels a bit like our joker in the pack. We’re not entirely sure when he’ll be back, how much he’ll be used once he is, or even how he’ll be used. But that could well be all for the better. Opponents will presumably be asking themselves similar questions.
One of the many reasons it still feels like he can represent one of Liverpool’s many valuable aces.