Thiago and Liverpool: this was supposed to be perfect…

Just over half a year ago, Thiago Alcantara was rightfully hailed as one of the game’s finest technicians, playing for Europe’s best team. With his contract running out, the Spaniard then decided to leave Bavaria behind and take on a new challenge, in order to “develop himself as a player.” At the time, swapping the champions of Germany for the champions of England seemed like a no-brainer.

But as we all know, it hasn’t been so simple. A handful of injuries has obviously made Liverpool’s season more difficult, overshadowing Thiago’s potential glorious introduction to English football. Van Dijk, Gomez, Matip, Keita, Jota, Fabinho, Henderson, Matip again, the list really goes on and on. Pandemic-induced pains have smashed Liverpool’s title defense.

In the midst of a hellish debut season, Thiago hasn’t showcased his world-class ability. While much of that can be attributed to Liverpool’s injury crisis and subsequent underperformance, I do believe Jurgen Klopp has a few questions to answer. 

Hansi Flick adapted his tactics for Thiago, and in turn won them the famed Treble.

At Bayern, Hansi Flick deployed Thiago in a “quarterback” role as the deepest midfielder in a three or in a pivot, sitting in front of the back four. This enabled Flick to play two stronger and faster midfielders in Goretzka and Muller ahead of Thiago to carry out their extremely high press, while still retaining the technical ability he brings (below). Bayern dominated the Bundesliga with their counter-pressing, as they led the division with 103 tackles won in the attacking third over the course of the 19/20 season. If anyone was under the impression that having Thiago on the pitch was a potential weak point, Thiago finished the season with 77 tackles and interceptions, third to only Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich (both were inducted into FIFA’s Team of the Year). Thiago’s positioning made him effective defensively.

Flick trusted his defenders enough to have Thiago alone in the middle of the park, although they looked a bit on the ropes when the opposition broke their press (and still do to this day, even without Thiago). Thiago’s best assets — his range of passing and press resistance — were constantly on full display, as he dictated tempo and played line-breaking passes from all angles. In the 19/20 Bundesliga season, Thiago attempted the most passes (1777) by any non-defender.

Jurgen Klopp has been adamant that Liverpool don’t play the same way as Bayern do, and that Thiago’s role must be adapted.

Fast forward to this pandemic-ridden Premier League season, and it’s clear Thiago hasn’t enjoyed the success he envisioned. His full debut came in a 2-2 draw with Everton on October 17th, 2020, and although the game was overshadowed by Jordan Pickford’s rash challenge on Virgil Van Dijk, Thiago played very well alongside Jordan Henderson and Fabinho. Their pressing and defensive capabilities were crucial in letting Thiago play the way he wanted, dropping deeper into pockets across the midfield to dictate play. The balance the trio provided seemed to resemble exactly what Klopp was looking for.

Since then, however, Liverpool’s available midfield and defensive options have played hot potato with the treatment tables. But despite their injuries, Liverpool are losing games they simply shouldn’t. Some say the team has lost the belief that once made them so great. Tactically, in an effort to protect his depleted back-line, Klopp has played Wijnaldum as his deepest midfielder (below). The Dutchman is far more athletic than Thiago, and is consistent in his ability to make up ground quickly and to make tackles effectively. Thiago has either slid in alongside Wijnaldum in a pivot or alongside Jones as side-by-side eights. 

Klopp’s ideal style of play differs ever so slightly from Flick’s. While Flick’s main ball progressors are his center-backs, Klopp’s are his full-backs. Van Dijk is exceptional in this realm, and his absence has made ball progression that much more difficult. This detail is crucial in respect to where the respective managers have placed Thiago. Instead of playing him deeper as Flick did at Bayern, Klopp is instructing the Spaniard to get further up the pitch, in an effort to get him involved once Trent and Robertson have progressed the ball substantially. Klopp has needed added creativity in the final third, as Mané and Firmino’s (and the full-backs’) numbers have dropped off this season. But it isn’t necessarily playing out that way. Their attacks often stagnate as their Premier League opponents know the danger their full-backs possess, and Thiago can’t always produce closer to the opposition’s goal.

While Thiago’s eye for a pass and control in tight spaces are world class, it is evident that he isn’t at his best around the opposition area, especially against teams that press Liverpool. In these instances where the game becomes more chaotic (as Klopp loves it), Thiago becomes ineffectual altogether. Robertson, Trent, Jones, and Firmino look for Mané and Salah, often bypassing Thiago.

When attacking against a low-block, the fullbacks provide the main source of chance creation, forcing Thiago to make surging Gundogan-like runs into the box, which aren’t his forte (below). Curiously enough, despite being more comfortable as a deeper midfielder, Thiago still often finishes games with a higher average position than Curtis Jones.

On the flip side of the ball, Thiago’s lack of physicality and mobility make it difficult for him to excel in Klopp’s gegenpress. He often mistimes his tackles and isn’t nearly as adept defensively as, say, every other Liverpool midfielder. Klopp’s style is renowned for his high-octane pressing and counter-pressing, so it feels puzzling that he’s choosing to put Thiago there (especially when Flick basically gave him the perfect blueprint in last season’s Champions League knockout stages), making him a bit vulnerable. Perhaps this will improve with more time under Klopp’s tutelage.

This WhoScored graphic highlights the Premier League’s best and worst tacklers from this season, in terms of success and timing. Thiago ranks very, very low.

If Liverpool want to best utilize Thiago, Klopp should consider getting him on the ball as much as possible — by playing him deeper — while giving him passing options everywhere.

Over the course of his career, Thiago has shown to be at his best when operating with as many options as possible around and in front of him. At Barça, Guardiola realized exactly that, but couldn’t bring himself to play him ahead of Busquets (hence why he was sold to Bayern).

There are several ways Klopp could reduce the risk of being caught out when losing possession, while still getting the best out of Thiago. Here’s my take.

As Robertson is so effective when going forward, he will always have free license to do so. When the ball is on the left, Trent should drop into midfield or alongside the right-sided central defender., adding an additional player to the ‘layer of protection.’ His excellent deliveries from deep can still be used to great effect. When the ball is out right, Jones should cover for Robertson (as he’ll always get forward), keeping the same shape as in the prior scenario. These will create two banks of two (Thiago-TAA + Kabak-Phillips; Jones-Thiago +Kabak-Phillips) players along the halfway line, providing Klopp with the comfort he so desperately desires (below).

Playing Wijnaldum ahead of Thiago would improve the Reds’ fluidity and unlock the best version of the Spaniard — sitting deep and playing line-breaking passes. Last Sunday against Sheffield United, there was a moment (gif below) in the first half where Wijnaldum surged ahead of Thiago, and the Spaniard slipped the ball in between the lines to him. Gini then beat a man and came close to scoring. This passage of play exemplified exactly what is possible when the two swap roles.

Liverpool’s woes this season have provoked many fierce accusations of Klopp’s tactics and moaning antics, and it’s clear the side hasn’t been at its best with Thiago on the pitch. There are obviously several issues Klopp has to address to manage a drastic change of narrative, but I do believe it’s possible. Players are beginning to return from injury, and Liverpool are in a strong position in the Champions League. And as well know all too well by now, football is a game of fine margins.

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