It’s fair to say that Shaqiri made quite the impact on his full debut.
With Klopp opting to rest Milner, Shaqiri was thrust into the starting line up, at Anfield no less. That didn’t faze Shaqiri though, who went on to have a storming half. And despite being substituted at half-time, fans were impressed enough by his performance to vote him as their Man of the Match.
WHAT a performance from this guy. 👊
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) September 22, 2018
What made Shaqiri tick against Southampton though?
To start off, let us examine the tactical choices made by Jurgen. When Shaqiri was brought in this summer, many expected him to play backup to the likes of Mane or Salah. Klopp instead elected to keep his front three and played Shaqiri as a midfielder instead of a forward. It resulted in a change of formation where Salah was the central forward, while Firmino and Mane being on the left and right of Shaqiri.
The 4-2-3-1 formation proved to be a masterstroke by Klopp, with Mark Hughes unable to nullify his former charge. With the Saints back line preoccupied with the combine threat of Salah, Firmino and Mane, the ex-Stoke man was given the license to roam. That’s backed up by his heatmap, where he spent the majority of the match in the void behind Salah.
In a free role, Shaqiri certainly caught Southampton off-guard and in a dilemma. Ignore him and he’ll be free to pick his passes and get behind defenders. Mark him and it means taking the attention off Salah, Firmino and Mane.
The Saints ultimately decided to focus more on the trio, a decision which Shaqiri punished them for. On too many occasions did Shaqiri ghost past the Southampton defence, with no defenders keeping tabs on him.
Take Liverpool’s opening goal for example. Both Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond were guilty of ball watching, failing to notice Shaqiri completely free on the left. A simple pass by Mane released Shaqiri. A cut-back and two ricochets later, the ball was in the back of Alex McCarthy’s net.
Having been involved in 2 of Liverpool’s goals – his 35-yard free kick saw the ball crash against the bar for Salah to tap-in – it was therefore surprising to see Klopp substitute him at half time. Explaining his decision, Klopp said: “The whole team was not used to what we did today. As a new player, usually you struggle most but he didn’t – he tried everything. The only problem was defensively. Offensively, it was a good idea but, how I said, we have to work on that more often.”
Listening to Klopp’s comments, I’ll interpret it as Klopp wanting to add some stability to midfield. With the game all but wrapped up for Liverpool, it made sense to bring on Milner. Cause as much as an offensive threat Shaqiri is, he still isn’t up to speed with Klopp’s geggenpressing. With Milner, the idea was to win the ball back and help the Reds defend better.
However, I can’t help but notice that Shaqiri’s substitution coincided with a seemingly more adventurous Southampton. In the absence of Shaqiri, Southampton no longer have to worry about a player running in behind them. This freed up Oriol Romeu, who was caught between advancing and tracking Shaqiri up till that point. Still, I understood Klopp’s rationale to take off a new player still trying to get to grips of a new system.
Saturday’s game against Southampton was certainly an intriguing match from a tactical perspective. Against opposition where Liverpool is expected to dominate possession, this could be a viable game plan. Shaqiri could be that creative No. 10 that fans were crying out for since Coutinho left.
Though in its infancy, this strategy certainly holds a lot of promise. When it’s fine-tuned, I can only the havoc unleashed on our rival’s defence. Up the Reds!