Thiago Alcântara is a magnificent footballer. I want that on record before anyone accuses me of even hinting to the contrary.
There’s a reason Liverpool wanted him. After winning the Premier League, the club jumped at the opportunity to sign a man who not only has world-class talent and a lot of experience, but also a serial winner who collects trophies for fun.
Based on raw footballing talent alone, I’m not sure any other Liverpool midfielder comes close to the little Spaniard.
But there is a problem. A giant, yellow elephant in the room. That’s the same colour as the little square pieces of card he has become all too familiar with.
Thiago has four yellow cards so far in his first Liverpool season. That doesn’t seem like a lot when taken out of context, but the fact is he has only ever amassed more in a league season on two occasions – the last two campaigns he spent at Bayern.
It seems Thiago has added a more combative streak to his game over the last two or three years, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it needs to be controlled and he needs to get a better sense of where the line is than he currently seems to have.
I’d like to think part of it is him still adjusting to a new league, with new referees who manage the game differently to officials back in Germany. Barely a game has gone by where we haven’t seen the Spaniard looking nonplussed at the man in the middle, utterly bemused by a decision that has gone against him.
But no matter what the case, the simple fact is he has to address this issue, sooner rather than later. If not, both he and the team could suffer for it.
Take the victory over Wolves, for example. It took 42 minutes for Thiago to commit enough fouls to force Craig Pawson to brandish a yellow card in his direction. Before half time, he had already committed enough minor offences to put himself on thin ice.
Even worse was his reaction – or lack of one – after play resumed. He continued to throw his weight around in the middle of the park, launching himself into risky duels and generally not adapting his game to take into account his caution.
That’s why Jürgen Klopp hooked him after little more than an hour. And while I understand and respect that no player likes to be substituted, the confused and angry expression on Thiago’s face as he realised he was the one being replaced only told me how unaware he was that he was close to receiving his marching orders.
If he had got sent off, Liverpool would have been a man down while trying to defend a slender lead, which they only just managed in the end with 11 on the pitch. With only 10, they may not have pulled it off.Embed from Getty Images
And it’s just the latest example of his over-eagerness early in matches putting him in a difficult position. All four of Thiago’s yellow cards have come in the first half of games, and his cautions against Southampton and Manchester City both came as early as the third minute.
Committing fouls and being punished for it is part of the game. It’s going to happen sometimes, and that just has to be accepted. But small changes could make a big difference for Thiago, as most of his bookings have felt avoidable.
With injury-enforced absences for both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson this season, the Liverpool midfield has lacked some steel at times. Thiago has clearly tried his best to make up for that, but now he has the Brazilian back alongside him in the middle of the park, he can focus on what he does best – pulling the strings and manipulating the ball in ways few others on the planet can.
We all just want to see Thiago show his full potential on Merseyside, as he has done before in Barcelona and Bavaria. It will be much easier for him to do so without one arm tied behind his back.
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