Upon arrival from the October international break, some of Liverpool’s key players returned with inuries. Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta, Virgil van Dijk, and Mohamed Salah all either picked up an injury or reaggravated an existing one over the last two weeks with their national sides. While the latter two were fit enough to play in this past weekend’s match against Huddersfield, the former two were forced to sit out, paving the way for a couple of teammates to get a 90-minute shot at impressing the boss by adding their style of football to Liverpool’s system.
Xherdan Shaqiri was one of these teammates. The Swiss attacker made his second league start of the season and mostly thrived due to the tactical flexibility of manager Jürgen Klopp.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s Positioning
When the starting elevens came out an hour before match start, there was plenty of speculation as to what general formation Liverpool would play in. With the truth in mind that formations in football are very fluid, the shape of the squad out on the pitch was a type of hybrid 4-3-3 with a staggered midfield, in which Shaqiri was the forward-most midfielder. His 10 positioning gave the attack a different dynamic.Shaqiri played on the right side of the three-man midfield, but moved centrally during attacking sequences. Liverpool have not played with an attacking central midfield presence in years. (via Sofascore)
Shaqiri’s instructions were to position himself between the lines, meaning between the Huddersfield back line and the midfielders. He was allowed a lot of movement during the match, floating anywhere from the right touch line to the forward middle attacking areas. This positioning and flexibility played to Shaqiri’s strengths of passing and seeing the whole of the pitch.Klopp is brilliant at playing his players where their specific skill-sets can thrive (the only exception currently being Keïta). In this sequence, Shaqiri sees the open spaces in the central forward areas, where he attacked for much of the match. (Fig. 1) Here, Shaqiri’s vision and creative use of space is shown. Shaqiri receives a ball from Joe Gomez from the right side, and turns using his body to shield the ball from the defender, even pulling the ball back with the slightest of movements to pull Huddersfield defenders forward. (Fig. 2) Through this movement away from goal, he is both allowing Robertson to make a run down the left side and giving him space behind the defenders to cross it.
This central midfield focus came with responsibility. Shaqiri is known for being strong in attack, but not so much as a defensive player. There were a few moments in the match when Shaqiri would fail to successfully place himself between the possessor of the ball and a passing outlet, one of the vital concepts of gegenpressing.Even Shaqiri admitted he has had to get comfortable with the unique type of defending in Klopp’s system. While occupying the space between the Huddersfield midfield and the back line, keeper Jonas Lössl sees Shaqiri playing forward in this area and realizes he has an open midfielder(not pictured) behind Shaqiri. He hits a long ball to him, but Shaqiri is very quick to close him down and force a poor pass that ends up out of bounds.
Klopp adjusted his system for this too, however, as Jordan Henderson and James Milner were instructed to stay further back in the midfield to cover the space Shaqiri would leave when attacking.
Creativity in Space
In this system, Liverpool tried various ways of attacking to include Shaqiri, with mixed results. Alisson hit long balls into the space between the Huddersfield lines, which were open when Shaqiri would fall back in the midfield. Salah and Shaqiri attempted quick one-touch passing moves. Salah and Daniel Sturridge refrained from pushing forward a few times to allow Shaqiri to use his speed to get in behind the defence. Salah and Shaqiri failed to connect in certain situations, and while space was created for Shaqiri and other attackers to occupy, getting the ball to said attackers proved difficult.(Fig. 1) Shaqiri’s freestyle positioning was contingent on where space was available. Shaqiri often posted himself in this space, nearly paying dividends multiple times. Here, Salah had the ball in the box covered by multiple defenders. Henderson provided an outlet, and Shaqiri stayed just in front of the right side of the box, in plenty of space, for Henderson to give a quick pass. (Fig. 2) Unfortunately, Huddersfield’s defence was usually successful at stifling any potential final passes and closing down Liverpool’s attackers around the Terriers’ box. Shortly after Shaqiri’s shot from the top of the box was blocked, Shaqiri’s excellent pass found Andrew Robertson open at the top of the box, but the Scotsman’s shot was also blocked.
What did work however was getting the ball to Shaqiri in those forward midfield zones, thus giving him space to use his creativity.Occupying the space between the lines, Shaqiri collects a nice pass from Gomez. He uses his vision to see Salah making a run into the box, and uses his accurate passing to hit a through ball to the Egyptian who scores the only goal of the match.
Shaqiri often received the ball with his body or momentum moving forward, allowing himself the quickness to progress the ball forward.
Shaqiri finished the match with 1 assist, 2 key passes, and 55 total passes completed with an 87% pass completion, good for best of the entire starting XI. Yet as stated, overall Liverpool’s final third passing was questionable, something that has nagged the team in multiple matches this season.
While Liverpool consider themselves fortunate to have come away from John Smith’s Stadium with all three points, Xherdan Shaqiri should consider himself a large contributor to that win. The personnel shift, though it was an uncommon position for the Swiss man, allowed him more opportunities on the ball, therefore utilizing his vision and passing. It’s unknown just how long his injured teammates will remain out for, but you can be sure Shaqiri should play a part in Liverpool’s trophy chase, thanks to the personnel flexibility of Klopp’s tactics.