Xherdan Shaqiri has hit the ground running at Liverpool, clicking with the Reds’ vaunted front three and instantly endearing himself to the club’s supporters. But his transition has required more adaptation than meets the eye…
The right talent, the wrong opportunities
Xherdan Shaqiri has spent the better part of the past decade in a state of career flux. Talented enough to be a one-man highlight reel, but unable to find the right long-term fit.
He shone at Bayern Munich when given the chance, but couldn’t establish himself as a regular in a squad full of world-beaters.
Shaqiri’s loan spell at Inter Milan was remarkably uneventful. He had moments of brilliance in his three years at Stoke City, but playing in an underwhelming squad under Mark Hughes never seemed the right recipe to get the most out of the Swiss.
There were question marks when he joined Liverpool this summer, most notably over his work ethic and willingness to buy into the off-ball ethos Jürgen Klopp has so firmly instilled in his troops.
But with half a season down and the Reds in full flow, it seems Shaqiri has found a tailor-made club for his talents. You’d imagine the feeling is mutual, as the club have already seen a clear return on the measly £13.2 million they paid for him.
There’s no disputing the talent has been there from the beginning, but Shaqiri’s integration into this Reds squad might not be as intuitive as it first appears. At 27, he’s had to change not only his habits out of possession, but adapt to playing a different role to the one that’s earned him acclaim in the past.
And he’s done it remarkably well.
From focal point to puzzle piece
Shaqiri played with some talented attacking units in his time at Stoke. He formed dangerous partnerships with the likes of Marko Arnautovic and former Barcelona men Bojan Krkic and Ibrahim Affelay.
But by and large, he was expected to bear the brunt of the offensive responsibility, to create both for himself and for others. He was magical on the ball at times, but the bulk of his work was just that: on the ball.
The goals Shaqiri has scored in his short time at Liverpool – as well as the chances he has missed – speak volumes about his reading of the game and general off-ball awareness.
Of his six goals this season, five have been one-touch finishes.
In three seasons at Stoke, he scored 15 goals. Only four of these were first-time finishes – excluding free kicks.
With the supporting cast and the constant rotation within this Liverpool system, Shaqiri has been able to showcase the intelligence of his movement, not only in picking up pockets of space in which to receive the ball, but in finding dangerous positions in and around the box.
Xherdan Shaqiri's production through his first 800+ minutes as a Red actually betters the starts both Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah had with the club.
Shaq: 6g, 3a
Salah: 6g, 2a
Mané: 4g, 4a
What a signing pic.twitter.com/CVZ5dmafJ1
— Alex Mansfield (@el_mansfield) December 26, 2018
The fluidity and potency of the players around him has allowed the Swiss to often hide in plain sight, something he wasn’t accustomed to in seasons past. It might seem a minor change from afar, but it signals a dramatic change in how Shaqiri is asked to play and process the game.
Has he had the ability all along? He’s a brilliant footballer – it’s impossible to say.
But to make the impact he has – to turn in the kinds of performances that warrant serious consideration in arguably one of Europe’s most dominant sides – speaks of his willingness and ability to adapt.
A more pragmatic shot profile
At Stoke, Shaqiri’s shot volume from outside the box was nearly 2-to-1 (98 from outside the box vs 59 from inside). Much of this was down to the nature of the system, and while he was incredibly adept from range (10 of his 15 goals came from distance), it was not necessarily a sustainable template.
Part of this ratio was also down to being Stoke’s primary set-piece taker. But Shaqiri was still prone to what most would perceive as “impulsive” tendencies when he got within 30-yards.
He’s shown far more restraint since linking up with the Reds, with just 13 of his 24 shots in the Premier League coming from outside the 18-yard-box. Of those 13, four have come from direct free kicks.
In addition, the 2.22 expected goals figure he’s tallied from within the penalty box this season already outranks the single-season marks he put up two of his three seasons at Stoke.
The underlying skill sets
Shaqiri’s success is another example of the understated brilliance within Liverpool’s scouting ranks. Klopp, Michael Edwards & Co. have taken a player with undeniable talent but a distinct aesthetic and slotted him into an already competitive squad.
The abilities Shaqiri has showcased in the past have not been overlooked, but rather crafted to get the best out of both the player and the system. It’s fast becoming a calling card of the recruitment team, and is definitely something to consider when potential transfer targets surface in the future.