Photo: Rui Vieira (AP)

Liverpool are legitimate contenders to win all the big trophies this season for the simple reason that their starting lineup is crammed full of players who are amongst the very best at their positions. Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, the forward line generally, the full back tandem specifically—all these players credibly belong on any list of the Premier League’s and even the world’s most exceptional talents. But while it’s obvious that any given club will only go as far as its best players can take it, it’s just as true that if Liverpool are to finally capture that long-awaited Premier League title, what will push them over the edge will be rotation players like Xherdan Shaqiri doing what he did against Manchester United this weekend.

Liverpool annihilated Manchester United at home on Sunday. By the end of the match the stats (a 3-1 final scoreline, and a humiliating 36-6 total shots difference) and the buzz in the stadium were pretty good reflections of the Pool Boys’ dominance, but the victory didn’t feel quite as comfortable in live time. Liverpool controlled the game from the first whistle and took a deserved lead 24 minutes in through a Sadio Mané strike. From that moment, it looked like United were in line for a hiding. However, less than 10 minutes after the game’s opening goal, United struck back after a fluke of a blunder from Alisson gifted Jesse Lingard a tap-in. The Red Devils somehow managed to carry that level scoreline deep into the match. Liverpool’s heavy hitters kept raining blow after blow, shot after shot, down upon United’s goal, but for the longest time they couldn’t get the ball into the back of the net.

Just when it started to look like United might squeak out a José Mourinho special—defined as getting battered for 90 straight minutes but somehow coming out the other side with a point or three—manager Jürgen Klopp tossed the Reds’ over-qualified bench hitter Xherdan Shaqiri into the game. Almost immediately, the Swiss winger sealed the deal. Shaqiri gave Liverpool the lead in the 73rd minute, just three minutes after he’d stepped onto the pitch, and then landed the death blow with a second goal in the 80th:

Shaqiri isn’t a starter for Liverpool, he isn’t one of the club’s best players, and he has and ideally will continue to spend more time watching games from the sideline than running around out on the pitch himself. He is, though, one of the team’s most important members if Liverpool hope to win something this season. That’s because Shaqiri is what Liverpool were most missing last season: a high-quality attacker who can spell his betters in the team’s ideal starting lineup.

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Liverpool’s starting lineup, combined with their intense pressing style of play, has been good enough to compete with anyone else’s in Europe for a couple years now. It was no accident that they made it all the way to the Champions League final last season. But outside of those 11, the Reds’ depth has paled in comparison to several of their competitors—chief among them their main rivals for domestic trophies, Manchester City. It was also no accident that, in spite of their Champions League success in 2017–18, Liverpool were miles off the pace of City’s historic Premier League-winning campaign.

An elite starting lineup can win you a game or two against anyone, but it takes a handful of really good rotation options—primarily of the attacking variety—to compete against an impossibly deep team like Man City over 38 games. Injuries, fatigue, and temporary drops in form mean that at some point in every season, a team will have to turn to a backup player or two to win games, doing so either as starters or coming off the bench to change a tough match. City have practically an entire backup XI that is at all times on hand to sub in for the starters and win games, which is why it’s so hard to envision them dropping enough points to let anyone else snatch away the title.

Liverpool brought Shaqiri in this summer to give them a similar weapon, a man who could spell Salah and Mané to keep those two fresh while maintaining something close to those guys’ level of play. (Midfield talents Fabinho and Naby Keïta were brought in to serve a similar role for the center of the park, though both have better chances of ousting their starting counterparts and becoming regulars.) And with the five goals and two assists Shaqiri’s added in the league in just seven starts and six substitute appearances, highlighted by the two critical goals he scored on Sunday, Shaqiri is playing his role to perfection. After all, it’d definitely no accident that Liverpool are currently off to their hottest start to a league campaign ever, currently atop the Premier League table one point above the almighty blue juggernaut in Manchester.

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If—and it’s still a big if—Liverpool are to keep up this blistering pace to the season and finish the year with the title, it will of course be mostly due to the continued excellence (and health) of Salah and van Dijk and Mané and the rest of the big names. But a critical factor—the one thing missing from the team’s failed title challenge a season ago—in any potential league success will be the limited yet crucial contributions of Shaqiri and the other killers Liverpool have on the bench who are ready and able to get out there and wreak some havoc at a moment’s notice.