Sturridge, Origi, Firmino, Shaqiri – Liverpool's super-subs are making the difference in the title race
Posted On March 22, 2019
The Swiss star’s brace against Manchester United means there have now been seven league goals scored from the bench by the Reds this season
He stood for what seemed like an eternity, desperate to make his mark.
And, having waited three minutes to enter the fray, shivering on the sideline as the ball stubbornly refused to go out of play, Xherdan Shaqiri needed just three more to stamp his name all over English football’s most famous rivalry.
Liverpool haven’t had too many heroes against Manchester United of late. Not in the Premier League, anyway. The Reds had not won any of their last eight fixtures against the men from Old Trafford, a run stretching back to March 2014, when Luis Suarez was flying, Brendan Rodgers was smiling and an unlikely Premier League title challenge was brewing.
That challenge eventually faltered, with Rodgers’ Liverpool just not strong enough, their squad just not deep enough, to topple Manchester City. Suarez and Co. took them to the brink, but there was little beyond the Reds’ first XI capable of seeing it through.
The same, surely, cannot be said about the class of 2018. Liverpool returned to the top of the table courtesy of their Shaqiri-inspired victory on Sunday, and can guarantee Christmas No.1 with a victory at Wolves this coming Friday. They’re on an 18-game unbeaten run in the league, they’ve conceded just seven goals all season and they have an attack which is feared across Europe.
And, crucially, as Shaqiri’s intervention shows, their quality is not limited to their starting line-up.
The Swiss star’s brace against United means there have now been seven league goals scored by Liverpool substitutes this season. An incredible tally, considering the figure for the whole of the last campaign was just three.
They’ve been big goals, too. Daniel Sturridge’s screamer at Stamford Bridge pinched a point, Roberto Firmino scored with his first touch at Burnley to give the Reds a decisive lead, and Divock Origi came from nowhere to settle the Merseyside derby with a 96th-minute winner. Shaqiri, with two goals in the space of 10 minutes on Sunday, turned one point into three.
“They have all made the difference,” Klopp said on Sunday, who also referenced Nathaniel Clyne’s performance at right-back, in what was his first Premier League appearance since May. Liverpool’s win over United was achieved with Sturridge and Adam Lallana unused, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joel Matip injured, and with captain Jordan Henderson appearing only for the final few minutes of the game. Options wherever you look.
“A big squad isn’t there to make each member of the squad happy,” he continued. “It’s to give everybody the opportunity to show that he should play.”
So far, so good, in that regard. Shaqiri could count himself unfortunate not to start the game, but his reaction when called upon typifies Liverpool’s togetherness at the moment. Their rise to the top has been very much a collective effort.
“Obviously I’d be lying if I said you are not disappointed when you are on the bench,” the former Stoke man said.
“But I always stay positive and try to help the team when I come on and you saw today when I came on I tried to help the team and to have an impact. In the end, I scored two goals and we won the game and that’s, for me, the most important thing in the end.”
The 27-year-old’s impact at Anfield has been excellent. He now has five goals from 17 appearances; in an era of lavish spending, the £13.5million Liverpool paid in July looks like the steal of the century.
“Of course, the experience is here, you can see that,” Shaqiri says. “I also played in the Premier League three years, it’s my fourth year in the Premier League and you can see that on the pitch. I have experience in this league, I’m very pleased to be here and try to improve myself, too.
“I’m in the perfect place here to improve myself and we want to achieve something, everybody together. We are in a very good way to do that but we have to keep going, work hard every day in training, and bring that on the pitch.”
Shaqiri rejects the widely-held idea that, after spells with both Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, his move to Merseyside represented his last chance to crack it at a top European club.
“No. For me, I just want to improve, I don’t think that far,” he says. “I’m 27, my best age to perform at a high level, so I hope the best times are coming.
“I’m in a good way and I want to help this club to try to achieve a lot of things. Of course, I know the style, how they play, it’s for me, too. I have to go on the pitch and perform, and I have qualities to be in the team, to have an impact, to decide games like today.
“I want that, too, so I try to perform always when I am on the pitch, to help the team and to try to decide the game, to have an impact, to score goals, to give assists, and I’m very happy at the moment with my performances.”
He’s not the only one. At the final whistle on Sunday, Shaqiri’s name rung out from the Kop. They have a new hero to salute, they have loads of them this season.
Liverpool’s title challenge is built on stronger foundations than it was four years ago, that’s for sure.