When offered the chance to write a piece on Thiago Alcântara’s potential arrival at Anfield, my eyes lit up. If Reds fans were not already licking their lips at the prospect of the Spaniard signing, his was arguably the outstanding display in the biggest game in club football, as Bayern Munich drew level with Liverpool’s six European titles, beating PSG 1-0 in Lisbon.
What to write on Thiago, though? It is hardly as though a player profiling is needed in the way that my last feature piece tried to show what Kostas Tsimikas would bring to Merseyside. Thiago has posted more than 300 appearances over the last ten years, split between the European powerhouses that are Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He is a known commodity, who would be welcomed to any and every single club in world football, and the mooted fee of €30million is a mere reflection of his contract situation, and the effect that the COVID pandemic has had on world finances.
What is known about Thiago, however, opens up another potential discussion- we know why Liverpool may want him, but do we know how Liverpool want to use him?
It has been suggested that Thiago could be replacing Georginio Wijnaldum, whose contract situation is equally precarious, and whose former national team manager, Ronald Koeman, has apparently indicated a willingness to take the Reds’ number five to Barcelona.
As is often mentioned, it can be difficult to measure Wijnaldum’s true importance to the Klopp system, due to his off-ball intelligence and work-rate. However, a statistical comparison between Thiago and Wijnaldum does suggest that in terms of measurable skills there is no area that the Dutchman excels in that Thiago does not.
Using the brilliant Football Slices tool (@FootballSlices), I have cut the data selection to include only Champions League minutes over the last two seasons, so as to remove any contributing factors of relative league quality. It is only on tackle success percentage that Wijnaldum comes out on top between the two, but then the Bayern man is in the top percentile of tackles won per ninety minutes (possession adjusted) of all midfield players across Europe- winning nearly four times more than his Dutch counterpart.
He is equally in the top ten percent for both pass completion percentages, and successful pressures, two areas that Wijnaldum would appear to do well in.
Could Thiago, then, merely be used in Wijnaldum’s role in the well-established 4-3-3 system that has worked so well for Liverpool in recent seasons?
That is certainly a possibility, Thiago can play in the more offensive central midfield roles and has excelled there against English opposition. As Bayern won 3-1 against José Mourinho’s Tottenham last December, he operated on the right of a midfield three, slightly ahead of Joshua Kimmich with Coutinho getting forward on the left, but he is equally adept on the left- where Gini is more often seen. Thiago even played in the ‘number ten’ role behind Robert Lewandowski when the Germans won 5-1 away to Arsenal in 2017.
The first lineup that I have mocked up, then, features the one-time Barcelona academy product merely as a like for like replacement for Wijnaldum in that system.
Nevertheless, recent seasons have seen Bayern Munich generally utilise a 4-2-3-1 with Thiago being favoured in the left-sided role of the double pivot, partnering the likes of Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso. The Spain international is desperate to come deep for the ball so that he is allowed to dictate possession, and ends up with the greatest number of touches of any player on the pitch with freakish regularity. His 75 completed passes was *twenty-two* more than any other player in the Champions League final, and double that of any member of the PSG side.
Liverpool did not tend to drift away from the 4-3-3 in 2019/20, but there were instances in the 2018/19 season when Klopp had deployed this. His reluctance to continue was often a result of a lack of trust in Xherdan Shaqiri to do the defensive work required from the right-wing position. However, with the increased attacking production seen from Jordan Henderson over the last twelve months, this suddenly becomes a viable option again.
As Liverpool beat Southampton 4-0 at Anfield in February, Henderson was playing notably further forward than both Wijnaldum and Fabinho, and just inside of Trent Alexander-Arnold on the Reds’ right. As a result, Mohamed Salah was pushed even higher upfield- with Roberto Firmino dropping deeper than usual- and the Egyptian flourished, contributing two second-half goals.
All this is to say that Thiago’s arrival would make a transition to a quasi 4-2-3-1 with Henderson operating as a ‘false winger,’ if you will, very, very plausible. Factoring in the need for regular rotation, Naby Keita could mirror that role to the left side, if Henderson was unfit or in need of a rest, and obviously Henderson has shown that he can perform in a deeper role if it were either Fabinho or Thiago who were missing out. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would also likely prosper as a ‘false winger’, and arguably did so at home to Atlético Madrid.
Another relevant factor in the reported pursuit of the 29 year-old, could actually be to do with Liverpool’s financial astuteness.
While Thiago could not be called upon as a central defender himself, Fabinho has never looked too out of place when shoehorned into that role, and with Billy Koumetio and Ki-Jana Hoever breaking through as defensive prospects, it could be that Klopp and the Anfield recruitment team would be comfortable not replacing Dejan Lovren with the purchase of another centre-half.
Fabinho then fills the fourth-choice central defensive role, if any two of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez were to be injured, with Henderson and Thiago being used as the deeper midfielders.
It has been widely reported that Liverpool’s finances have been badly affected by the international lockdown. The signing of one of the outstanding central midfielders in the world right now could be funded purely by the sales of a rarely called-upon squad player like Lovren, and a loanee of last season, such as Harry Wilson or Marko Grujic. This, all while avoiding blocking the passage to the first team of some of our most highly-rated youngsters, is very, very intelligent and sensible business.
Of course, all of these options assume that Gini Wijnaldum leaves the club, which would be a very disappointing day as he has been a brilliant and dependable member of the best Liverpool side seen in generations. His two goals against Barcelona formed the best night in the club’s history since Istanbul.
However, even this summer, the likes of Pep Ljinders have referenced the idea that Liverpool must improve and adapt, or risk falling back towards the chasing pack. Thiago’s signing could be the catalyst necessary for greater dominance of possession against even the biggest teams in Europe, even if it is difficult to believe that the Reds might manage to improve a side that has just won the Premier League with a club-record 99 points.
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The easiest way to make such a step?
Adding the player who just this week controlled and dominated a Champions League final.