For an indication of how important Thiago Alcântara was to Bayern Munich, it is worth going back to the team’s last training session before last season’s Champions League final. On a warm Saturday evening at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, and just before the session started, Hansi Flick could be seen speaking with Thiago for a solid two minutes. The conversation appeared to be about passing strategies and made for compelling viewing given its intensity, seen most strikingly in the moment the head coach shoulder-checked the midfielder. It was also unique – no other Bayern player, at that most crucial of stages, received the same attention.
Faith, trust, reliance – it was all there, and Thiago did not let Flick down. He was superb against Paris Saint-Germain the following day, delivering the most passes of any player on either side (85), not to mention the highest number of successful passes (88%), the highest number of accurate long balls (10) and the joint-highest number of chances created (two). He was arguably Bayern’s best player in inarguably their biggest game of the season and then, with victory and the treble secured, he was gone.
Bayern’s loss became Liverpool’s gain but it has rarely been felt. Thiago, having arrived in mid-September, has played only 285 minutes for Jürgen Klopp’s side, firstly because of a positive Covid-19 test shortly after his debut against Chelsea, and then because of the knee injury sustained in the following month’s Merseyside derby having been on the end of a horrendous challenge by Richarlison.
It has been frustrating for all concerned and especially given that in Thiago’s absence Liverpool’s title defence has not only stalled but gone backwards. They go into Sunday’s home encounter with Manchester United playing catch-up to their bitter rivals, and although it would be simplistic to say they would not be in this situation had Thiago been available more often there is little doubt he would have made a difference given Liverpool’s standout failing has been a lack of creativity, away from home generally and during their past three games especially.
Klopp’s side have scored only once since hitting seven past Crystal Palace a month ago and although that sudden downturn can in part be put down to complacency, tiredness, injuries and dips in form, tactical factors have also been at play. More than ever this season, opposition teams are attempting to nullify Liverpool by packing their areas and for West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle and Southampton, Liverpool’s past three opponents, it had a striking and, from their point of view, successful effect.
The champions have continued to play their way but against West Brom and Southampton in particular it was noticeable how much more they were crossing to force a breakthrough. That is not necessarily a bad thing given the success Liverpool have had with crosses under Klopp but the problem is most were poor, seen most starkly against Southampton when 35 were delivered from open play with only two resulting in goalscoring opportunities.
Thiago was on the pitch but the game passed him by, which was no great surprise given it was only his second appearance and first start since injury. Rustiness was clearly an issue, but having excelled in last Friday’s FA Cup victory over Aston Villa (albeit against a side made up of teenagers with cramp) he appears to be fully up to speed.
Liverpool will certainly hope so given what awaits them at the weekend, namely a United side sure to sit deep and look to hit them on the counterattack. In response, the hosts cannot seek to open them up by again flinging aimless crosses into the area. An approach built around high-quality, high-tempo and intelligent passing is required and there is no better man to lead that charge than Thiago. He showed it for Bayern and has done so for Liverpool, specifically against Chelsea when, having come on at half-time, he attempted and completed more passes (82/74) than any other player to have played 45 minutes or fewer in a top-flight game since 2003-04.
It may have been against 10 men but it was striking to see how suddenly and completely Thiago became the orchestrator of Liverpool’s forward approach. Everything went through him – the faith, trust and reliance Flick had in the 29-year-old now evident in his new teammates, and again he let no one down. His passing was not only often and accurate but wonderfully varied, weighted and timed. Some of his deliveries had more disguise than a cold war spy and the cumulative effect was Liverpool stamping their authority over increasingly dazed and ragged opponents.
It was textbook Thiago, an illustration of why he was signed by Klopp – “He’s an exceptional player” said the manager upon the deal being confirmed – and clearly the way forward for Liverpool as they look to get their title defence back on track. To some extent it is a case of them fully investing in how they have always performed at their best under Klopp and which has seeped out of their play since Christmas. With a fully fit and integrated Thiago it should return at an enhanced, more sophisticated level. As Klopp also said upon signing the Spain international: “He will bring a different dimension to our game.”
That should also be the case given Thiago’s willingness to take the ball into contact areas, which allied to an ability to dribble at speed and with great agility and control has the effect of pulling opposition players out of position and creating space for himself and others to attack. Cue smiles and sighs of relief among Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané given the manner in which they have been crowded out during Liverpool’s poor run.
The trio will be further encouraged by the fact Thiago has already created five goalscoring chances at Liverpool, which works out at 1.6 per 90 minutes – higher than his average of 1.1 per 90 for Bayern last season.
“What can I say about Thiago? He’s a dream,” said Niko Kovac, Bayern’s head coach during the 2018-19 season, probably Thiago’s best across the seven years he spent at the club. “We’ve got a massive pool of exceptional midfielders but he’s the heartbeat, a player who can do everything with the ball.”
Of that there is little doubt and, starting on Sunday, the hope for Liverpool is that he can make a telling contribution to this tightest of title races.