Besides the exciting football and Jurgen Klopp’s relentless energy, Liverpool’s popularity among neutrals is partly down to the modest careers of their players, reminiscent of Gareth Southgate’s young England squad at the World Cup.
Andy Robertson was signed from Hull, Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. A cluster came from Southampton, others from Newcastle, Sunderland and Leipzig. There’s not one silver-spooned graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia.
It makes for hunger and humility in the Anfield dressing room. But the downside has been the lack of a winning mentality at the highest level, knowing what it takes to go from nearly men to champions.
It is something Klopp has tried to address in the transfer market and Liverpool start their Premier League campaign against West Ham today with optimism high about claiming a first league title since 1990. While the big money has been spent on keeper Alisson and midfielder Naby Keita, two other arrivals, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri, bring experience of winning major European leagues, something only James Milner possessed last season.
There were eyebrows raised when Shaqiri was snapped up for £13million having been relegated at Stoke. But the 26-year-old winger brings not just a magical left foot but a stack of medals won at Bayern Munich, and the savvy gained by playing under pressure at another huge club, Inter Milan.
If there is any collective doubt at Liverpool about taking the final step to dethrone Manchester City — who finished 25 points clear of the Reds last season — Shaqiri’s bullishness is the antidote.
‘I came here to win titles. This club needs that ambition. Liverpool is one of the best clubs in the world. We want to be one of the best teams in the world,’ he proclaimed.
‘Nothing is impossible. We can be everything we want to be. We beat Manchester City in the league and the Champions League last season so we can win everything.
‘Whoever we play, we want to go on to the field trying to win the game and dominate the game.’
Klopp will love that mentality from Shaqiri, who enjoyed a great World Cup for Switzerland and celebrated his Anfield debut on Tuesday night with a brilliant assist for Daniel Sturridge in a 3-1 friendly victory against Torino.
Shaqiri was just 20 when he joined Bayern and became part of the team who won the treble in his first season. Though he stayed on the bench for the 2013 Champions League final against Dortmund, he featured in wins against Barcelona and Juventus earlier in the competition, then starred for Pep Guardiola when Bayern retained the Bundesliga the following season.
Fabinho, a £35m Brazil midfielder, was a key member of the Monaco team who beat Paris Saint-Germain to the French title two years ago. He won’t freeze if Liverpool are involved in the title race.
Klopp has invested £170m this summer — the most of any manager in this transfer window — having already paid £75m for centre back Virgil van Dijk in January.
The bookmakers see Liverpool as City’s main challengers and Shaqiri believes that is partly down to their strength in depth. This afternoon, captain Jordan Henderson and World Cup finalist Dejan Lovren will probably be held back, but Liverpool should still have enough to see off West Ham.
‘Liverpool had a successful season last year without winning a trophy. Now it’s important to be very good again and to try the last thing. Sometimes you need to know how to win the games you really need to,’ says Shaqiri.
‘The new players are going to bring more good qualities. With this squad, the coach can rotate and keep the quality in the team. You need that because the Premier League has a lot of big games.
‘I hope we are going to kick on against West Ham and try to give the fans what they deserve: titles.’
Shaqiri was born in Kosovo before emigrating to Switzerland to escape the Balkan troubles. He is a passionate personality and admitted feeling ‘emotional’ when he ran out at Anfield for the first time.
Klopp will perhaps stick with his dynamic front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, but Shaqiri has a massive part to play. Twelve of his 15 Premier League goals for Stoke were scored with his left foot, most of them stunners. And at the World Cup, he scored a last-minute winner against Serbia, running from the halfway line and calmly shooting home.
His Stoke team-mates were not on the same wavelength last season — ‘even Ronaldinho could do little’ — but he has found training and playing alongside the likes of Salah a pleasure. ‘We’ve started working well,’ he says. ‘We are Liverpool. We want to compete against Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid.’AFP