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Releasing Thiago From His Defensive Shackles To Save Liverpool's season

We are yet to see the best of Thiago Alcântara since his move from Bayern Munich but we are sure that there is a lot more to come from the Spanish maestro.

Upon his arrival, Thiago Alcântara was classified as one of the best central midfielders in the world due to his time at Bayern Munich. 

Hence, the excitement when the Spaniard signed for Liverpool last September. He is a world-class performer. However, new signings are often subjected to intense scrutiny when somebody arrives with such a reputation.

A player’s performance can only truly be assessed when he plays in the position that he has signed for. Unfortunately, Liverpool has suffered from various unique challenges in this pandemic compromised campaign. Thus, he has hardly played minutes in the role that he specialises in.

Thiago: The Deep-Lying Playmaker 

Since arriving from the European Champions last year, there have only been three games where the La Masia de Can Planes or ‘La Masia” graduate has been deployed in his preferred role. 

Ironically, all three games have been away from Anfield. Chelsea away was his debut. Everton, at Goodison Park, and then Wednesday night in Budapest against Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig.

For context, he has managed 932 passes in 14 Premier League games this season (66,57 passes per game) compared to 1,825 in 24 appearances for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last season (76,05 passes per game). 

The defensive expectations thrust upon him due to injuries ravaging through the Champions' side has meant that the number six has only had one shot on target in the league all season. Far fewer than the eight he delivered for Bayern in his final season in Germany.

Thus, his ability to influence the game in possession and particularly in attack has been affected by his lack of regular minutes in a playmaking role.

During the three games in which Thiago had the freedom to do his job, Liverpool managed two wins and a draw. On top of that, the draw at Goodison Park was clutched from the jaws of victory as the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) delivered an absurd offside call.

Liverpool’s injury crisis

Thiago’s introduction into the Liverpool line-up coincided with one of the worst injury spells in recent history. Football clubs across Europe have all had to manage a tighter schedule with the Coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc. 

This phenomenon has resulted in greater demand on players with fewer days for recovery. All of this has culminated in many of Klopp’s top players missing large portions of the season.

Fabinho was already at centre back for Thiago’s Liverpool debut – a second-half cameo at Stamford Bridge. Before both Thiago and Virgil van Dijk picked up nasty injuries in Liverpool’s draw against Everton in October. 

Unfortunately, both came from two horror challenges by Richarlison and Jordan Pickford, respectively. The centre-back issues have spilt over into every area on the pitch and Klopp’s delicately balanced machine has suffered as a result.

Absence of Fabinho and Henderson in midfield

Due to the numerous injuries in the squad, players were forced to play out of position. One of the key reasons behind Liverpool’s ascent to the top of England was their acquisition of Farabinho Henrique Tavares. 

The Reds had just suffered a disappointing defeat in the 2018 UEFA Champions League final as Real Madrid outclassed Klopp’s boys and the club needed a morale boost.

The Brazilian was recruited shrewdly. Most media sources were completely unaware of the deal until Fabinho was signing his contract at Liverpool. 

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That move brought a new level of balance to a developing side. Before that, Jordan Henderson was responsible for the ‘anchor’ role or the ‘number six’ in Jurgen Klopp’s system.

The Liverpool captain was groomed for the role from the moment Klopp joined in October 2015. However, he lacked some of the natural defensive abilities that Fabinho is so proficient in. 

But the former Sunderland man applied himself in fantastic fashion before being shifted to the right side of Klopp’s engine room. This positional switch has facilitated much of the attacking quality that Kopites have become accustomed to.

Henderson fulfils an important role on the right. He offers cover for the marauding runs of Trent Alexander-Arnold whilst also dropping into pockets of space to give Mohamed Salah more room to work. 

The injury crisis has altered this role. Liverpool’s 30-year-old captain has dropped to a deeper role to cover Fabinho and has even featured in the centre of defence more recently.

Consequently, the fluid right side of Liverpool’s attack has been blunted. Losing Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joël Matip has negatively influenced the team in various departments as was alluded to earlier. 

Thiago – Defensive Responsibilities

Thiago’s role has also been altered accordingly. Despite being a big addition to Klopp’s engine room last Summer – necessity has forced the manager’s hand. This coupled with Liverpool losing their positional discipline has forced the former Barcelona man to make more defensive actions than would have been first assumed.

He has been expected to work hard as part of Klopp’s counter-pressing machine. This, alongside the defensive vulnerability and constant rotation of the team’s spine, has stifled the midfielder’s attacking qualities.

During Thiago’s final seasons at Bayern Munich – he dominated the middle third with Leon Goretzka. Conversely, Klopp’s system at Anfield does not feature with a midfield double-pivot. A tactic that many new signings have struggled to adapt to initially. 

Even Fabinho took a couple of months to be completely comfortable at Liverpool. The lack of legs in midfield has led to Thiago needing to cover more ground, an aspect of his game which is not his strong point.

As depicted in the graphic supplied to LFC Transfer Room by Twenty 3 Sport and Sam McGuire – defensive actions by Thiago since his move last summer have been far less concentrated to the middle of the pitch. Substantiating the notion that he is covering more of the pitch.

Below, we see how different his style of play has been in 2020/21. He is applying more defensive pressures but delivering fewer interceptions and successful dribbles. He is putting in the effort, but his output is slightly lower at this stage of his Anfield career.

Thiago – The Verdict 

This season has offered unique challenges. Liverpool waited thirty years to lift their 19th league title, and many would have hoped to see a sustained title challenge in the aftermath of that. Because of that, this season would have been viewed as a massive failure in the eyes of some supporters and many pundits alike.

Nevertheless, Klopp and his lads have done well in their current situation. Thiago Alcântara is no different to this. He is putting in the effort and the hard yards to make himself successful in Merseyside and he can only truly face judgement once he has played in the system that he was signed for alongside the player’s that do their respective roles best. 

Performances like Wednesday night will become more frequent once players return from injury and the side settles into a shape.

Liverpool supporters have much to look forward to from their world-class number six, just you wait and see.