Jurgen Klopp’s signings for Liverpool have been so specific that they’re clearly as much about character as talent or skill sets. The Reds boss hasn’t just recruited the right players for his 4-3-3 system, but also the right players for his dressing room to create a sense of real comradery and collective growth at Anfield.
Nearly all his signings have been in their early twenties, and pretty much all of them naturally shy away from the limelight when they’re not on the pitch. There have been some huge transfer fees, record-breaking ones in fact for goalkeepers and centre-halves, but no huge egos or social media profiles accompanying them.
Instead, Klopp’s signings appear predominantly obsessed with self-improvement and are prepared to run through any brick wall put in front of them to achieve it.
But that’s exactly why Xherdan Shaqiri seems like such a strange addition to an otherwise completely feel-good dressing room. For starters, Liverpool’s most effective football last season came when their only true No.10, Philippe Coutinho, left the club for Barcelona in January, so there’s no obvious role for the Switzerland international in the Reds’ strongest starting XI.
Although we’ve already discussed why the contrast to Liverpool’s usual setup that Shaqiri offers could actually make the Reds a much better-rounded side over the course of a whole season, those arguments won’t stand up to much if the former Stoke talisman’s mindset isn’t in line with the rest of the squad.
After all, that’s always been the underlying drawback of an exciting footballer whose talent has never really come into question.
Shaqiri became a scapegoat at times for Stoke City last season, despite ranking top in their Premier League squad for goals and assists, but that caricature did have some basis in reality; every gorgeous goal and delicious setup was contradicted by 20 or 30-minute spells of aimless ambling around the middle to final third while the other 10 Potters on the pitch fought tooth and nail for Premier League survival.
At times too, Shaqiri’s frustration became painfully visible – throwing his arms up in the air or cursing the sky above him when he felt team-mates weren’t mirroring his own standards.
At Liverpool, that of course won’t be so much of a problem, but it still gives cause for concern. Shaqiri does have an ego about him, he does want to be the star man and he doesn’t have much interest in tracking back. Although Klopp has only increased the level of superstar talent in the team since arriving at Liverpool, he’s always prioritised the collective functionality of the team over the quirks of specific individuals.
For Shaqiri to slot in with the rest of the squad, especially if he’s to only play a bit-part role over the course of the season, he’ll need to embrace a new mindset. But we’ve seen the German change psyches before; Sadio Mane was deemed something of a prima donna as well during his time at Southampton, having developed a knack for scoring most of his goals in close proximity to transfer windows against top teams and often cut a frustrated figure even after Saints victories, but the Senegalese has only ever worked tirelessly under Klopp’s tutelage – even if selfishness in front of goal has taken over every now and then.
Shaqiri though, feels like the biggest test yet for Klopp – tactically and psychologically, he’s just cut from a different cloth from the rest of this industrious and dynamic Liverpool team. In that sense, while the Reds paid out an incredibly modest £13.5million to sign the attacking midfielder, he’s still very much an ambitious project, one that could give Klopp a variety of problems to solve.
But perhaps that’s part of the allure with bringing Shaqiri to Anfield, and the early signs are certainly encouraging,chiefly the stunning bicycle kick against Manchester United in pre-season.
A goal like that, especially in a rather uncompetitive friendly, has never been beyond Shaqiri’s capabilities, but we’ve also never seen that from him before either – actually getting into the box rather than waiting on the edge of it, and then attacking the ball with an incredibly athletic finish. The suggestion of self-improvement is already there.
Of course, pre-season is much different to an actual Premier League campaign, and the real evidence comes over the course of the next year. Can Klopp quell the ego of a workshy playmaker who will likely be a rotation option at best to make him a valuable part of a Liverpool squad that will expect to challenge for trophies next season, or will Shaqiri prove a poor fit for this Reds outfit in the manner he initially seems? It’s a key barometer of Klopp’s judgement of character and his ability to change them.