Before last night’s victory over Rb Leipzig, the always interesting Arsene Wenger discussed Thiago’s influence on Liverpool and made an intriguing observation.
Wenger intimated that Thiago is the result of when a very good team tries to improve and add something different in an attempt to reach even greater heights. In this case, an extremely technical, skilful midfield creator/controller on top of a hard-working, physical, positionally astute roster.
“Liverpool were very hungry and aggressive in midfield,” he told beIN Sport. “As a manager, you think, “now I want to make the team better and I’ll get a technical player”… When you get a technical player you lose the aggression in midfield and you destroy a little bit of the strength of Liverpool. They have certainly less capacity today to win the ball back and they suffer a little bit more. So sometimes when you want to improve the team, you take something away from the team.”
Much of the time when pundits make a declaration on a Liverpool player based on our good form or bad form, we take it with a pinch of salt, but Wenger’s idea is poignant and maybe more compelling as he regularly tried to add guile and reinvent winning Arsenal sides, to the point he eventually removed any steel. Patrick Vieiras became Andriy Arshavins. Emanuel Petits became Alexandr Hlebs and so on.
But this theory ignores the situation Thiago has found himself in at Liverpool. It’s a small sample size, but in the 62 minutes the Spaniard played ahead of Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool scored two goals at Stamford Bridge, conceded zero and scored one at Goodison Park without reply, too. The opposition didn’t really touch the ball due to our high-line, pressing and wonderful ability on it. (We all know what happened upon van Dijk’s exit after 17 minutes v Everton; a moment which has in many ways defined our season.)
On that afternoon, Thiago was just coming back from coronavirus, and minutes after being named Man of the Match for his clever performance on the left of a midfield trio that included Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, Richarlison scythed him down and injured him for three months.
Check out his performance, here:
😍| Watching Thiago pass a football is one of the best things in life.
— The Kopite (@TheKopiteOFF) December 18, 2020
Thiago’s return in January coincided with Liverpool’s physical and mental implosion and as a result, fans and journalists have tried to connect the two a little too easily.
But there is still proper analysis to be done of Thiago’s minutes in red; what he’s done so far and how Liverpool can get the best out of an undoubtedly world-class talent: one of the most aesthetically pleasing midfielders I’ve ever seen at Liverpool.
The Big Issue: Thiago off the ball…
So, let’s start with the glaring issue. Thiago yellow-card bingo is a running joke on Liverpool Twitter and the comparison between his and Paul Scholes’ tackling has already become tired. His silly foul on Harvey Barnes v Leicester City was the catalyst for the nonsensical seven minutes which followed – and the verbal bollocking Jordan Henderson handed him that afternoon went viral.
Versus Rb Leipzig last night though, Thiago was visibly better at staying on his feet – suggesting the coaching team has instructed him to cut out his reckless going to ground. He’s too smart and intelligent a player to continue making the same mistake, so I’m putting much of his tackling errors down to getting up to the pace of a new league in a new position after a long injury.
In Budapest, he snuffed out one counter-attack with a clever interception, instead of sliding round the side of the onrushing attacker.
Thiago has just made a very, very good tackle there.
This is *not* a drill.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) February 16, 2021
Remember, Liverpool don’t need Thiago to be a tackler. Scholes won 11 Premier League titles in spite of his off-the-ball headlosses, largely because he played alongside the likes of Roy Keane, Michael Carrick and Nicky Butt – excellent defenders who would largely do this work for him.
Without Henderson and Fabinho in midfield, Thiago has taken on a defensive responsibility which hasn’t suited him.
While it’s been pointed out by Sky Sports that Thiago has always been someone who attempted tackles at Bayern Munich, he’s never made as many fouls per/90 as he has this term – currently leading that metric for all players in the Premier League.
A combination of Thiago feeling less defensive responsibility upon the return of our world-class battlers and a caging of his instinct to fly in should see this early phenomenon squashed.
Thiago on the ball: How to utilise his wonderful skills
Make no mistake, Thiago is a technical genius with vision and confidence in buckets. No player has made more passes that cut out opponents at the same time as retaining possession. He’s miles ahead of Kevin de Bruyne in this metric – and that’s during a period when he’s been described as a problem!
You can see where he plots on this graph – inches away from any rivals:
Thiago is ridiculous. Maybe Liverpool should get their defensive midfielders back in midfield to help him. https://t.co/tbjPM2km1V
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) February 10, 2021
So why have we often looked flat and lacking ideas with Thiago dominating the ball in midfield?
Much of the answer is in the utter lack of ambition of opponents, who have camped on the 18-yard line and time-wasted from minute two – but that’s not something Liverpool should complain about and instead should be considered a problem to solve.
Previously, we’ve seen the fullbacks simply waiting on the touchline to receive slow-ball, which then minimises their chances to cross and the ball is passed back inside and we go through the monotonous cycle again…
But in our past two matches, versus Leicester and Rb Leipzig, you’ll notice how we’ve been far more direct and in the process, have appeared to play faster football. Henderson, at left centre-back, has pinged countless diagonals to Mo Salah on the right-wing – the same pass van Dijk used to play – which often cuts Thiago out.
Early on in January, Hendo would simply pass Thiago the ball five yards ahead of him, and while the Spaniard wasn’t doing anything wrong with it, it gave opponents time to regroup, sit in and cover the runs of Salah and Sadio Mane on the flanks.
Thiago needs to see less of the ball at Liverpool than he was during some of our dire January stalemates – so when it does break to him – opponents are not in a position to react to his insane ability to find a runner or simply someone’s feet with one of his iconic zipped passes to feet.
How the team can adapt to Thiago, and how he can adapt to us
A major issue of January and early February was that with the front-three bar Salah lacking confidence, the midfield was all doing the same thing: recycling possession and passing to feet. Gini Wijnaldum doesn’t get in the box, Thiago doesn’t get in the box and neither does James Milner or so far, Curtis Jones; although this could change as he develops.
With Thiago in a central three, he needs a player to win the ball back (Fabinho or Henderson at no.6) and a midfield all-rounder who’s going to cover huge amounts of ground and potentially run beyond the strikers or at least into the area.
This is a role Henderson has always claimed to love, but is also one which will suit Naby Keita perfectly, and maybe Jones long-term. It also suits Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but our current issue is we’ve got nobody to sit in at no.6 to allow Thiago the freedom to float and make things happen because of the injury crisis.
Of course, at Bayern, this isn’t what he did. He sat in at no.6 and everything went through him. He dictated tempo, but Liverpool at our best play at a high tempo to Bayern and are more direct, while teams in the Bundesliga don’t sit in like they do in the Premier League nowadays.
Thiago must adapt to a more creative and less controlling role, allowing our fullbacks to set the tempo with quick crosses and the forwards to receive first-time, over the top passes. He is obviously more than capable of doing this.
Thiago is a special footballer and a great guy – It’ll come good
Many of the players have already explained what kind of a person Thiago is and he appears extremely confident and settled into the group. Why wouldn’t you back yourself after winning the title in each of your past ten seasons?
He came to Liverpool to conquer and there should be no questions on his attitude, commitment or ability to adapt. He’s become a scapegoat for the poor form in 2021, but nobody has mentioned the arguably worse performances of Gini Wijnaldum, who’s leaving for pastures new in the summer. Of course, Gini has proven his brilliance over a number of years, and it’s now time for Thiago to do the same.
Unity is strength, as Thiago tweeted last night. Let’s hope the 2-0 victory and his underrated performance is a sign of things to come – as the Reds work out how to utilise a truly world-class operator whose ilk we haven’t seen under Jurgen Klopp.
— Thiago Alcantara (@Thiago6) February 16, 2021