FootballPremier League

Thiago Alcantara is one of the few available players who could improve Liverpool’s first team

August 26, 2020

IN order to ring-fence Liverpool’s position of supremacy in the Premier League this coming season, Jurgen Klopp would do well to borrow a couple of credos from the Reds’ rivals past and present.

Firstly, Sir Alex Ferguson always maintained a key factor in Manchester United’s sustained success under his guidance was that he would add to his squad from a position of strength, making key signings when his teams were at their most dominant.

The second credo Klopp should copy ahead of Liverpool’s first title defence in three decades comes from current nemesis Pep Guardiola: “Thiago oder nichts” – Thiago or nothing – the Catalan coach said in 2013, when asked about his transfer plans during his first summer in charge of Bayern Munich.

If the 2020 Champions League final is to be Thiago Alcantara’s last appearance for Bayern, there could be no better end to the midfielder’s time in Bavaria. A key component in seven back-to-back Bundesliga titles, the former Barcelona playmaker signed off with a man-of-the-match turn in Bayern’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon.

“Yesterday we had the meeting with our employees and his whole family was there, and they wandered around the square in great nostalgia [at the Allianz Arena], I would say,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Bild. “It looked a lot like goodbye, as if he had made up his mind.”

Anfield is rumoured to be Thiago’s desired next destination. And with his current Bayern contract set to expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, he is believed to be available for just £27m.

The son of former Brazilian international midfielder Mazinho, Thiago’s formative years were spent in Spain – more specifically, in Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth system. And it is for the way the 29-year-old combines footballing characteristics of both nations that he is one of few players in the world – and, crucially, perhaps the only realistically available one – who could improve Liverpool’s current starting line-up.

It is often by design that Liverpool’s midfielders see less of the ball than might be expected of a possession-dominant side; the middle third is occasionally bypassed in favour of a swift switch of flanks or an incisive back-to-front pass between Virgil van Dijk and a member of the front three.

The ability to control games at the highest level, initiating shifts in tempo at will, is an asset for any top side, though. No Liverpool player is able to do this as effectively as Thiago, an heir to Xavi and Xabi Alonso in the Spanish set-up. Naby Keita averaged 75 passes per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season, the highest of Liverpool’s midfielders. Thiago averaged 91.3 passes per 90 in the Bundesliga and has averaged fewer than 90 passes in only one league season in his entire career.

His Barcelona-bred reverence for the ball would tighten Liverpool’s stranglehold on games, but the typically Brazilian elements of his game would perhaps be of even greater value.

The Champions League final showcased it best. Thiago orchestrated play from his central position, settling Bayern after early Paris Saint-Germain chances and turning the screw as his opponents visibly tired late on. But he also employed a degree of flair and invention at the right times to carve into the PSG defence. Only Thomas Muller could match him for chances created (two) and only Kingsley Coman could equal his count of successful dribbles (two).

There is a carefully designed functionality to Liverpool’s midfield under Klopp; the conservatism and graft of the middle third is the basis for the side’s freewheeling exuberance in other areas. But when other avenues are blocked off, Keita is arguably the only Liverpool player able to offer something different: a change of pace, a sharp dribble or an ambitious ball between defenders.

Thiago has made a career of luring in opponents and cutting them open. He averaged more successful dribbles per 90 (3.6) in the Bundesliga last season than any Liverpool player in the Premier League. His one chance created per 90 in 2019/20 was the lowest league average of his career (he has averaged over 1.5 in every other year with Bayern), yet it was still a higher return than all but one of Klopp’s current midfield options.

And while, with his age and injury record, there can be no guarantee he would adapt seamlessly to English football, Thiago has had his eyes on England and Liverpool for some time, it seems. It’s a move he has well scouted.

“In England it’s as physical as Germany but it’s about the duels you win: defender against forward, midfielder against his opposite number,” the 37-cap Spain star observed in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. “There’s more long balls, more players arriving in the area too. It’s not so much speed as strength. I love watching English football. It’s the league I most enjoy. And the national team have undergone a good transition: they have a very good team.”

“Look at Liverpool’s midfield: Henderson, Milner, Chamberlain,” he continued, “they pressed like animals in the Champions League. They ate up the midfield. They were fantastic.”

Liverpool have dynamism in abundance, unpredictability up front and a rigidity at the back – aided primarily by the signings of Van Dijk, Allisson and Fabinho in 2018 – upon which their recent success has been founded. They have also become renowned for their innovative use of full-backs as primary creators.

Thiago’s addition would not detract from any of Liverpool’s strengths, rather he would augment them, taking a tighter grip on a game’s tempo and feeding the flanks with redoubled precision.

Crucially, though, with his ability to pierce through the heart of opposition defences, Thiago would add yet another string to an already taught and powerful bow.