Liverpool's convoluted move for Nabil Fekir, and its eventual collapse last summer, seemed to whip the fans into a frenzy, so much so that when the club turned its attention away from the Lyon forward, their "Plan B" might have been considered a touch underwhelming. Yet while there are many contenders for Liverpool's Player of the Season award so far -- from Virgil van Dijk to Andrew Robertson and even James Milner -- right among them is Xherdan Shaqiri.
Shaqiri's two goals against Manchester United in the 3-1 win at Anfield earlier this month were the most eye-catching contributions of his time at the club, but regular watchers would suggest he made his presence felt some time ago.
The addition of Shaqiri, signed from relegated Stoke for around £13.5 million in the summer, has worked perfectly for Jurgen Klopp on a number of levels, the most basic of which is his individual performances. Klopp has variously described the stocky Swiss midfielder's contributions as "genius" and "not normal" -- the latter, it should be stressed, was meant in a positive way. But more than that, Shaqiri has been a symbol of how brilliantly this Liverpool side works as a footballing machine. He has slotted in seamlessly, absorbed into the team like a dancer joining a group routine without missing a step. That's down to him and his attitude, of course, but also the collective unit being so flexible and amenable to new arrivals.
Typically players are signed by big clubs to replace, put pressure on or act as backup to their established stars, but Shaqiri instantly complemented last season's magnificent attacking trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Yet to even introduce Shaqiri as a part of that attacking line-up was a significant gamble for Klopp.
Given Liverpool's problems last season were at the back and their front three contributed 91 goals between them, nobody would have criticised him for leaving them well alone and concentrating on making improvements elsewhere. But Klopp knew the forwards occasionally had problems breaking lesser sides down last term; in those sort of games, a slightly different approach was called for. That approach has been to play a 4-2-3-1 formation with Shaqiri playing alongside the others, and not just individually excelling but making the team as a whole better too.
Signing a lower-profile player from a relegated club when you have title aspirations might have been considered a gamble, but Liverpool know it can work because they've made it work before. Andrew Robertson and Georginio Wijnaldum were brought in from Hull and Newcastle respectively, after their demotions to the Championship, and if you add Shaqiri, the trio cost about £45m. The concept of "value" might seem a bit outdated in a modern age where clubs the size of Liverpool have such lavish resources, but it shows that their transfer policy is flexible. They want the right player, rather than the biggest name or the most expensive.
Shaqiri, in particular, carried an element of risk. A player who had failed at his two previous big clubs, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, he had a brief public spat with Charlie Adam earlier this season to fuel rumours that he was a troublemaker. But in reality he wasn't any trouble at all, described by one figure at Stoke as "probably the only positive" to come from last season.
Liverpool clearly knew not only what sort of player they were getting but what kind of character he had too. This was not simply a panic move after the Fekir deal fell through, either: they had been on Shaqiri's case for some time.
"Bayern didn't want to sell me at that time," said Shaqiri just after he signed, discussing the summer of 2014 when he wanted to join Liverpool only for it to be blocked by the club. "Then the following January I signed for Inter. Of course I was disappointed not to sign for Liverpool, but my brother is my agent and since then he has always been in contact with the sporting director here [Michael Edwards]. Finally, I am a Liverpool player."
Of the players to arrive at Anfield last summer, Shaqiri looked at best the third-most significant, after Naby Keita and Fabinho, and at worst an afterthought, the consolation prize they fell back on when target No. 1 didn't arrive. But he's been the best of the three.
Shaqiri represents everything that Liverpool have got right this season and why they're top of the league when most people just hoped they would keep Manchester City looking over their shoulders. It speaks volumes that not many people are talking about Fekir anymore.