Of all the players on the fringe of Liverpool’s first-team this summer, Xherdan Shaqiri looked the most likely to move on – and with good reason.
In the prime of his career, having turned 29 three weeks ago, the Swiss international was linked with a transfer away having played seven times in the Premier League last season, which included just seven minutes post-lockdown.
Yet after opting to stay and fight for his place in Jurgen Klopp’s side, the left-footed playmaker has proven himself vital in recent weeks, culminating in an exquisite assist for Diogo Jota’s winner against West Ham on Saturday night.
The Swiss international is gradually working his way back into Jurgen Klopp’s first-team plans
The Liverpool manager admitted post-match that though Shaqiri had endured a difficult two years on Merseyside, his role in the first-team squad now was crucial.
‘Shaq has played an incredibly important role after a difficult time, and is important to us,’ said the Reds boss.
‘Shaq is a versatile offensive player. He has played for us as an 8, on the wing, and a 10 when he came on (against West Ham). That’s all the positions he can play.
XHERDAN SHAQIRI AT LIVERPOOL
- Appearances: 45
- Starts: 20
- Goals: 8
- Assists: 6
- Trophies: 4 (Premier League, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup)
‘He is a really good player and has made a massive impact in pretty much all of the games he has played. He was part of some of the biggest games in our recent history. I’m just happy to have him back.’
And it is no exaggeration when Klopp refers to Shaqiri’s often understated role in some of the biggest moments in the past two years, since he signed for £13.5m from Stoke City in the summer of 2018.
A match-winning double from the bench against Manchester United in December 2018 – their first league win over their arch-rivals in over four years – illustrated the key role Shaqiri could play in attack for the Reds, despite being unable to usurp the trusted front-trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
But it was two inch-perfect crosses in the space of four days in May 2019 which showed how effective Shaqiri, irrespective of a lack of minutes in the legs, could be in the long-term.
In desperate need of a goal to keep their title challenge alive at Newcastle, Shaqiri whipped in a stunning free-kick on the head of Divock Origi to score the winner – and take what would turn out to be a forlorn Premier League pursuit down to the last day.
But it will be Shaqiri’s cross from the left at Anfield against Barcelona which will go down in history. Spotting Gini Wijnaldum all alone in the penalty area, the pace and flight of the ball was perfect for the flying Dutchman to head home, in one of the most memorable moments in Liverpool’s history.
We all know what happened next.
Shaqiri has a history of making a huge impact from the bench, like against Man Utd in 2018
The Swiss international also set up a goal during the Reds’ 2019 comeback against Barcelona
But, for a while, that was the last we saw of the Shaqiri in a Liverpool shirt. Having played his part in the semi-final comeback, he was unsurprisingly an unused substitute in the final victory against Tottenham.
Last season was a real struggle for the winger, a player who has previously had experience as a fringe player during Bayern Munich’s treble-winning season in 2013.
After being out of action early on through a calf problem, the Swiss international was of scant influence as the Reds began their ascent to a first top-flight title in 30 years.
Yet again, despite having not played a single minute in 10 weeks, Shaqiri did actually step up to the plate in one of the biggest matches of the season.
Starting in a much-changed side against Everton last December, he scored a sublime second goal – timing his run perfectly beyond the defence and slipping the ball past Jordan Pickford – in a convincing 5-2 Merseyside Derby victory.
In one of just two Premier League starts last season, Shaqiri scored in the Merseyside Derby
Yet despite starts against Watford in the league and Monterrey in the FIFA Club World Cup that followed in the weeks after, he went on to play just eight more minutes all season.
In fact, from January 19 to July 5, Shaqiri was not even named in a Jurgen Klopp first-team squad – a total of 16 matches in all competitions.
Klopp referred to a combination of fitness problems: ‘It wasn’t that he wasn’t involved for disciplinary reasons, he was injured unfortunately. Sometimes players have a bad run with injuries, and that’s what he had.
‘It’s not that he was injured that often, it’s just the calf gave him some problems and now everything is fine.
The 29-year-old struggled with injuries last season and barely played after the turn of the year
‘It is good for him and even better for us because we missed him last year in a lot of moments. It’s not that we wanted to keep him out of the team.’
A summer departure, amid the arrivals of Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota as well as the emergence of youngsters like Curtis Jones, therefore seemed inevitable.
However, despite an elongated window which stretched out until early October, the playmaker stayed put and – as he has done during his time at Anfield – has capitalised on rare moments of opportunity on the pitch.
He scored a stunning free-kick in the EFL Cup third round win against Lincoln in September, whilst he came off the bench against Ajax in the European win in Amsterdam two weeks ago.
He scored a sublime free-kick against Lincoln in the EFL Cup third round win in September
Now though, having started on matchday two against Midtjylland and having made a game-changing impact on Saturday, Shaqiri’s consistency could force Klopp’s arm in the weeks to come.
‘It’s always nice to be involved,’ Shaqiri said after his assist on Saturday.
‘Obviously I was injured a few times and it was always the hard way for me until now. I’m very happy that I’ve got my minutes back, I’ve tried to stay fit and I hope it stays like this.’
What could work in Shaqiri’s favour in the coming weeks is his versatility – he is one of few players who can operate in both the deeper midfield trio, as well as on either flank further forward.
Shaqiri started against Midtjylland last week and could play a role from the off in Italy tonight
The playmaker may well be rewarded for opting to stay and fight for his place this season
With Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fabinho amongst a number of first-team stars on the sidelines currently, a start tonight – in a tricky away fixture at last season’s surprise package Atalanta – is not out of the question.
That’s the thing about Shaqiri – he’s proven he doesn’t need regular minutes to make a difference. His sheer quality, professionalism and street-wise experience means the 29-year-old undoubtedly has a part to play for Klopp and his side this season.
How much so, with form and fitness a problem in the past, may well be down to the man himself.