Counter Klopp-wise: Why Thiago Alcantara can keep the Liverpool clock ticking

Thiago Alcantara joined Liverpool from Bayern Munich this week in what is set to be another game-changing signing by the Premier League champions.

It’s October 2015. Months after Steven Gerrard did what was unfathomable one year ago and left the club, Liverpool are in a state of flux. Brendan Rodgers has been sacked after failing to build on a Premier League title-challenging 2013/14 campaign and making a horrendous start to the new season.

In comes Jurgen Klopp, whose hiatus from management did not even last half-a-season. A manager who had previously confessed his admiration for the Merseyside club, the German tactician is undoubtedly a popular appointment among Liverpool fans. However, considering the stature of the man who had just arrived at Anfield, he also brought with himself a sense of expectation to win the biggest of titles.

Klopp, though, exercised caution in his maiden press conference as the Liverpool boss, pointing that he needed time to do the work he had set out to do before adding he was hoping to deliver a trophy in four years’ time. If not, he said, the members of the press would next meet him in Switzerland.

As fate would have it, the Swiss exile would never come to be for Klopp, as he delivered on his promise, and in a big way. Liverpool’s long trophy drought ended with the triumphant 2019 UEFA Champions League campaign, which was complete with a memorable comeback for the ages.

Painting the town red. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Painting the town red. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Having become champions of Europe for an English record-extending sixth time, Liverpool went on to win two more trophies in 2019, winning the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. The conquests of Europe and the world would then be used as a stepping stone, as Klopp did what no other manager before him had done in the Premier League era.

Liverpool were English champions for the first time in 30 years, ending years of underachievement and agony at long last. But, getting to the top was not a straightforward process. Klopp had to carefully dissect the squad he inherited before moulding it into the all-conquering force that it is today.

None of the four departments in the first-team setup were managing to make any impression as a unit, let alone exceed expectations. Klopp subsequently bought smartly, assembling the now-formidable attack in less than £100 million. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have, between them, done the bulk of the scoring, with the trio also chipping in with some valuable chance creation.

The defence has been built around the indomitable Virgil van Dijk. At the same time, the full-backs hold a lot of importance in his squad, having become the Reds’ biggest source of creativity. Academy graduate Trent Alexander-Arnold and 2017’s low-money signing Andrew Robertson have been Liverpool’s go-to men when it comes to setting up the front men.

Between them, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson were the most creative tandem in the Premier League last season after delivering a combined 25 assists in 2019/20. Meanwhile, the primary objective of the midfielders has been to cover ground wherever the threat of space exploitation props up.

Liverpool's creative geniuses. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Liverpool’s creative geniuses. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Klopp has utilised the work-rate that each of his midfielders possess in order to create a tight-knit side that was incredibly difficult to breach. With this, however, there has come a caveat. Liverpool’s first-choice midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho set up only a combined 64 chances all season, with captain Henderson creating nearly half of those.

With the midfielders hardly posing any sort of creative threat, the raison d’etre for the opposition has been containing Alexander-Arnold and Robertson in order to frustrate and deny the Reds over the course of a game. That, in fairness, has been a tall order for Liverpool’s rivals for the most part the last couple of years.

However, the chinks in the red armour have, slowly but surely, begun showing up. There had to come a time when Alexander-Arnold and Robertson got outwitted. And, if Liverpool had to remain perched atop the Premier League while mounting a challenge for the Champions League at the same time, they needed to sign a player who could be such a game changer from the middle of the park.

Klopp has admittedly had the gargantuan task of improving a squad that had been nearly faultless, saying, “How do you evolve a Champions League winning midfield? A squad like this, to improve easily would be really strange. It would have to be 100 per cent the right player.” The Liverpool manager evidently needed to add a new dynamic to the group he was managing, but who would do that? Enter, Thiago Alcantara.

A player who was bred in Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy, Thiago has often been compared to his predecessors at Barcelona, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. However, while he does possess the ability to set the tempo of the match, his game is much more well rounded than the two Spanish behemoths.

A midfielder who has the class and technical command of Xavi and Iniesta in addition to the poise of a Sergio Busquets, Thiago is someone who will always look for a way forward instead of keeping things simple. At the same time, his excellent reading of the game enables the 29-year-old to protect the defence, thereby not compromising the defensive shield that is Liverpool’s midfield.

So far, Klopp has had to sacrifice either chance creation from midfield or the protection of defence. While Henderson and Wijnaldum excel at covering spaces, they do very little in way of catching the opponents off-guard with their passes. Meanwhile, the likes of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can add a new dynamic to Liverpool’s build-up play, but do not add steel in midfield.

As far as Thiago is concerned, versatility is not just his forte in the way he goes about his job in a position he is deployed in. Thiago can play just about any role in the middle of the park, offering Klopp a lot of flexibility in using his midfielders. He is also a player who has the ability to negotiate tight spaces and evade a press, something which was evident most recently in the UEFA Champions League final last month.

His phenomenal understanding of space also extends to finding pockets of spaces in different areas of the pitch, helping him create time for himself in order to pick out the best pass possible. This, in turn, is conducive to the way Mane and Salah play, giving them the incentive to run off the shoulder of the opposition defender while Thiago picks out their runs.

Former Germany captain Michael Ballack summed up Thiago’s positional abilities perfectly when he said, “He does not wait for the gaps to appear. He makes them appear.” In simple terms, Thiago is a player who can control a game, both on and off the ball.

Against Chelsea, Thiago had replaced Jordan Henderson, who has appeared to be undercooked after only recently returning from a knee injury. However, over the course of the season, he should ideally usurp Georginio Wijnaldum in the middle of the park. One look at the graphic below and it is clear to see that the 29-year-old is likely to be a huge upgrade on his Dutch teammate.

Comparing Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum (Courtesy: Football Slices, FBRef)
Comparing Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum (Courtesy: Football Slices, FBRef)

Not only does Thiago comfortably outperform on just about every metric for a central midfielder, he would have also ranked in or around the top five for midfielders in the Premier League for tackles, interceptions, passes into the final third and progressive distance. That is as close to a complete midfielder as Klopp could have laid his hands on this summer.

His performance in his debut, the penalty he conceded notwithstanding, was a sample of what is likely to come in the months and years that beckon Thiago at Liverpool. Despite coming on a second-half substitute, no Chelsea player had managed to complete more passes (75) or have more touches (89) than the Liverpool debutant.

His 75 successful passes was also the most by a player to play 45 or fewer minutes in a Premier League game since 2003/04 (when full passing data started becoming available). Klopp, who has previously hailed his new midfield star as one of the best players in the Bundesliga while he was still with Bayern Munich, called his Liverpool bow the “perfect debut” for Thiago; he is yet to hit his stride fully!

In some respects, Thiago is the long-sought heir to Xabi Alonso; the kind of player who has the vision, the delicate touch, the poise, the presence of mind and the understanding of the game to completely control the game. His passing range might not have as wide a span, but he has just the kind of quality to boss a match by pulling the strings effortlessly like the puppet master he is.

So, just when it seemed like Klopp’s Liverpool were starting to get figured out by rival managers, a masterstroke of a signing ought to leave the opposition bosses scratching their heads again. The Reds have an air of unpredictability surrounding their gameplay once again; Liverpool now have a player who truly enables them to attack their Premier League title instead of defending it, as Klopp claimed his side would. Are the Reds unstoppable again? Who would possibly tell them never?

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