Xherdan Shaqiri seems to have been damned by association. Stoke City fell out of the Premier League last season and Shaqiri, by virtue of being their most talented player, has been lumbered with all sorts of pejorative assumptions. One World Cup pundit even went as far as to brand him a disgrace for his contribution.
That doesn’t really add up – nor does it pass any sort of eye test. The consensus is that Stoke were relegated for a few reasons, not least their lack of a credible centre-forward and although there were reports of disharmony and a lack of professionalism within the squad, there’s no suggestion that those accusations extended to Shaqiri. Habitually he may not be the hardest working player, but he was still Stoke’s top goalscorer in 2017-18, still provided the most assists and, in the main, seemed to represent their greatest hope of avoiding the drop.
Now, Liverpool are circling. It’s expected that they will activate the release clause in his contract and that he will head to Anfield before the end of July.
Strangely, that’s the kind of move which both makes a lot of sense (low fee, low risk, big talent) but simultaneously very little. Liverpool have a very clear attacking philosophy, perhaps the most distinct in the whole of the Premier League, and Shaqiri is not obviously suited to it. A fabulous technician though he may be, he’s not known as someone who excels in fast-breaking situations or even for releasing possession particularly promptly. Both are stylistic imperatives for Jurgen Klopp, though.
Players can change, though. There’s no reason to believe that Shaqiri – who, despite having been around for ever, is still just 26 – can’t be adapted for purpose. In fact, he shares certain traits with Philippe Coutinho and the Brazilian hardly under-performed under Klopp. There’s a difference, clearly, in that one is a more vertical player than the other, but most players – most gifted players – have the capacity to make adjustments as required.
The bigger concern, though, will presumably be about squad dynamics. Again, the assumption there would be that Shaqiri will struggle in a one-of-many situation, when he is not an outright first-choice. But, as with the assessment of his final season at Stoke, that’s not a fear which survives inspection. His time at Bayern Munich, for instance, may have seen him on the periphery of the first-team, but his productivity ratios were still strong. When he was called off the bench or granted starts, he generally performed – and his playing personality appeared unaffected. He kept taking shots, he kept taking defenders on.
The conclusion to draw, then, is that this transfer’s success, should it proceed at all, will be defined by what concessions the player and the club are willing to make to one another. Shaqiri isn’t a sulker and isn’t likely to disenfranchise himself should he not immediately be involved in the first team, but there is no clear role waiting for him. One will have to be created, or he will have to force a tactical re-think.
How do Liverpool extract the most from Shaqiri without dampening that incendiary attack?
That’s what gives this move its intrigue. At the end of last season, the Salah-Mane-Firmino axis at the top of Klopp’s formation was arguably the most stable in the country, if not Europe, so entering that equation creates a challenge for Shaqiri at a stage in his career when it’s essential that he now becomes a headlining act. It’s time for him to do more than just compile highlights and, presumably, that’s behind his desire to move to Liverpool.
But something has to change for that to happen – something in him, but something in them as well.