Liverpool's lack of X-factor exposed by injuries - with no Coutinho or Fekir, Shaqiri must step up
The international break has not been kind to Liverpool as several key players reported back with injuries varying in severity.
The biggest concern surrounds Naby Keita, who will undergo a scan on his hamstring after limping out of Guinea's midweek international with Rwanda.
Keita had also been forced off early in Liverpool's recent defeat at Napoli after suffering a back spasm. The Merseysiders can only hope the two issues are not linked as they can ill afford to lose him right now given the lack of goals and creativity provided by their midfield so far this season.
For the first time since they sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona last January, Liverpool are missing the Brazilian. It's to the great credit of Jurgen Klopp and his squad that his absence was barely noticed as the Reds rampaged their way through Europe before finally coming up short against Real Madrid in the final.
No-one was thinking about Coutinho in the opening weeks of this season either as Liverpool reeled off seven straight wins to kick off the new campaign.
Recently though, the lack of a creative spark in midfield and -- more surprisingly -- in attack, has been glaring. Liverpool's strong defensive set up has compensated to some extent for the lack production further forward, but the Reds have now failed to win any of their last four games and back up striker Daniel Sturridge is the only player to find the net in that time.
It is now clear why Klopp had been so keen to add Lyon skipper Nabil Fekir to his squad last summer. The Frenchman is exactly what Liverpool are missing right now and he would have been the ideal replacement for Coutinho.
The move for Fekir fell through on medical grounds and Klopp brought in Xherdan Shaqiri instead, but the maverick Swiss attacker is not as accustomed to playing in the attacking midfield role that Coutinho and Fekir regularly excel in.
Liverpool's midfielders are all fine players with admirable qualities. The problem is most of those qualities are the same: Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are hard-working, disciplined, talented footballers but they are predictable and too similar in style. There is no X-factor in Liverpool's midfield.
The proposed move for Fekir was seen by many at the time as something of a luxury signing as the Reds already had a number of midfield players competing for just three spots. However, this was before we knew that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's injury was far worse than had been disclosed and that the former Arsenal man would likely play no part in this season.
Liverpool could really do with a Coutinho or a Fekir right now, but in the absence of that type of player they'll need to find another solution.
If Keita can rid himself of these types of little injuries then he's the man most likely to provide that thrust and goal threat from midfield, although it must be said that he is yet to show anything other than brief flashes of the explosiveness that persuaded Liverpool to spend €52m to acquire him from RB Leipzig.
He's been underwhelming to this point but Klopp's system isn't the easiest to adapt to and it can take time. It wasn't until the second half of last season that we saw the best of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andrew Robertson and it might be a similar story with Keita and fellow new boy Fabinho.
Shaqiri is in the same boat, although it largely depends on where he is deployed. He should not have too much difficulty adapting his game to fit into Liverpool's forward line but if Klopp wishes to use him in midfield he will almost certainly need to alter his system to accommodate him.
Klopp did just that in a 3-0 home win over Southampton last month but he wasn't exactly happy with what he saw. Shaqiri was Liverpool's best player in the first half against the Saints yet still found himself replaced at half-time as Klopp was concerned by how open his side looked when not in possession.
Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner are playing very well this season but they struggle to unlock a defence, rarely make runs ahead of the forwards and do not score enough goals. Having two of them in there is fine, but when all three play it can be problematic when the front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah aren't producing.
That's the key to it all really. When those front three are playing as they were last season it makes everyone else look better. Nobody was complaining about Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum when Liverpool were destroying Roma at Anfield last season for example. This season the forwards aren't scoring at the same rate and it is exposing some flaws in other areas -- specifically the middle of the park.
In the long term, Keita should provide the solution, but if he is ruled out for the next few weeks then that leaves Adam Lallana and Shaqiri as the two most attacking options available to Klopp.
A fully fit Lallana would make Liverpool a much more potent threat, but he's been out for so long with various ailments that it's impossible to count on him anymore. Sadly, if he were to start the next few games there's as much chance of him breaking down injured as there is of him scoring or creating a goal.
So perhaps it's time to have a look at Shaqiri in the deeper role that Coutinho often excelled in?
The quality of opposition meant that wasn't a realistic option for Klopp in Liverpool's most recent games, but Huddersfield, Red Star Belgrade and Cardiff are up next and none are likely to show too much ambition.
Liverpool need a spark and this could be the perfect time to give Shaqiri an extended run in the side to see if he can provide the ammunition to get the forwards firing again.