Big Match

Shaqiri can be spark for reds

In the Ox's absence, creative Swiss midfielder is the perfect foil for their fearsome front trio

After the drought, the flood. Liverpool had three goals in five games. They then mustered four in little more than an hour against Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League on Wednesday.

If it was the product of playing sub-standard opponents - a category that could also include today's Premier League visitors, Cardiff - it felt something more than that.

It indicated a shift in thought and tactics, a reversion to the recent past, a reconnecting with a formula that made Jurgen Klopp's side so prolific and potent.

Xherdan Shaqiri's high-class display did not just help Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane end personal goal droughts: it should also be a pointer to the future.

The focus on Liverpool's formidable front three was understandable as Firmino, Mane and Mohamed Salah racked up a combined 91 goals and broke Champions League records last season. Yet Klopp's attackers have never really been a trio as much as a quartet, including one forward-thinking midfielder.

The identity of the fourth member has varied - Adam Lallana two years ago, Philippe Coutinho in the first half of last season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a four-month spell when he produced the best form of his career - but there has invariably been a midfielder who has advanced to link up with, create space for and join the forwards.

In Shaqiri, either from a deeper role or in a 4-2-3-1 system, Klopp may have found the latest in a line.

Liverpool switched from one extreme to another this season, from cavalier attacking to defensive frugality, without finding the happy medium.

In part, it was a product of circumstances, both the breakdown of Nabil Fekir's summer move from Lyon and James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum's fine form, which made both undroppable. An intimidating fixture list may have made Klopp more cautious, but solidity came at the expense of expansiveness.

Liverpool scored five goals in 35 minutes after Oxlade-Chamberlain was injured against Roma in last season's Champions League semi-final first leg, but they have rarely been that explosive since.

They have arguably run riot only three times this season: against Red Star, an abject West Ham in August and Southampton in a first half when Shaqiri set up two goals and was then substituted to restore the defensive shape.

The Southampton game has another significance. It was the last time Liverpool struck early.

Klopp's side are renowned for flying starts, blowing away opponents with an early blitz, but they have scored only twice in the opening 18 minutes all season.

That could change in home matches against Cardiff and Fulham, especially if they get a fourth man forward at every opportunity.

More creative and less speedy than Oxlade-Chamberlain, Shaqiri is not a direct replacement. But he offers incisive passing and the common denominator is a capacity to make a difference in the final third.

It was what Liverpool lacked, and what the Swiss could restore.

LIVERPOOL V CARDIFF

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2018, with the headline 'Shaqiri can be spark for reds'. Print Edition | Subscribe