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A Game Of What If: Options To Fit Thiago Into Liverpool’s Side

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Let’s play a game of what if Liverpool are really in for Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich. What are the different options we could possibly see to fit the talented midfielder into the team?

FC Bayern Muenchen v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Oh transfer season. Every year there’s that one rumor that just won’t go away for whatever reason. Many times it’s an agent angling for a pay raise, or a team hoping to get a bidding war going. Then again, sometimes it’s just lazy journalism looking for clicks.

This season, Thiago Alcantara has been the rumor that keeps coming up. In the past week, club connected journalist Melissa Reddy broke news that Liverpool are indeed interested in the Spanish midfielder, so there does seem to be some merit to the rumors at least. While he’s not the prototypical transfer under FSG and Jurgen Klopp, he would immediately step in and make Liverpool’s midfield better.

For Klopp, it could signal the next evolution in his tactical plans. Under his management, Liverpool have gone from an all out gegenpressing team to a team controls the game much more. This past season, the midfield was primarily tasked with ball retention and recycling play. There was not much cut or thrust, with the attacks diverted to the fullbacks high up the wings, or from a long diagonal ball from a center back to an attacking player. As teams adjust their tactics, Klopp may be looking for more attacking impetus from the midfield. Enter Thiago.

While there is nothing to show that any sort of deal is imminent, there has been discussion on the interwebs of just how Thiago would fit into the current Liverpool side. This article is inspired by one such discussion between our own Audun Manum and a TLO veteran, Elwood. On the Sunday of the Champions League Final, where Thiago is likely to feature, let’s take some time to look at some of the options for how he might be incorporated into the side if something does happen.

Holding Midfielder

If Klopp wants to stay true to his 4-3-3 formation, this is where Thiago would be strongest, and this is the role that Thiago primarily plays for Bayern Munich. He thrives in dispossessing players and then moving the ball up the field, be it on the dribble or with pinpoint passing. While Fabinho has the more prototypical holding midfielder build, and uses those long legs to sneak in and tackle the ball, Thiago is very good at reading the game and putting himself in a position to make an easy tackle or intercept the ball. Thiago’s close control on the dribble and passing are on another level compared to Fabinho as well. This isn’t a knock on Fabinho, who has built himself into one of the best holding midfielders in the world over the last couple of season. Thiago’s ability to beat the press with a quick turn and then dribble past a player or two from a deep position is not something that is Fabinho’s forte. Below is a statistical comparison of Thiago (colored in portions) and Fabinho (outlined portions) from footballslices.com.

Box to Box Midfielder

While this is not where Thiago has spent the most of his minutes, he absolutely can play as a number 8. With uncertainty around Georginio Wijnaldum, Klopp could be looking for someone to slot into the left-sided midfield role. Wijnaldum has been extremely undervalued in the role he has been asked to play as a durable, “press-resistant” midfielder who he maintains possession of the ball and moves it to people in better attacking positions. While Gini is lauded for his ability to pretty much never turn the ball over, either on the dribble or with his passing, Thiago presents similar ball retention statistics with much more ball progression and attacking verve. Now, we also know that Wijnaldum absolutely has more in his attacking locker as we’ve seen with his time at Newcastle and with the Netherlands. His role is much more constrained by what Klopp has asked him to be as a cog in the midfield because of his tactical brilliance and game intelligence.

The other option in this spot, and one of the reasons Wijnaldum might be contemplating leaving, is Naby Keita, who has been lauded as the future of what Liverpool’s midfield might be. Keita is probably the most similar statistically to Thiago, and unfortunately both share the same trait of being a bit injury prone. Both are strong dribblers and incisive passers. Keita is a pressing machine, and tends to win the ball high up the pitch in positions to quickly generate a goal scoring chance.

While Thiago is being talked up by many as a replacement of Wijnaldum, should he leave, another option is to have someone to spell Jordan Henderson. Liverpool’s captain, and the soul of the team, has had his own injury history, dealing with plantar fasciitis and a recent knee injury. At 30, Henderson could probably use a few more spells on the bench to keep him fresher. Henderson probably does not get enough credit for how progressive of a passer he is. He’s been given license to play some riskier passes in and around the box. He also often plays outside of Trent Alexander-Arnold, providing cover for the fullback while Trent ventures forward to deliver crosses. The drawback to having both Henderson and Trent on the same side is neither is a particularly good dribbler, so much of the offense is built around getting them into good positions before getting the ball to them.

If it’s a question of shoehorning the best players into the squad in the current system, playing both Keita and Thiago — in place of Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson — with Fabinho behind them could offer one of the most well rounded midfield units in the world.

Double Pivot

While Klopp has been pretty much wedded to the 4-3-3, Thiago could potentially partner in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-2-2-2. When Klopp first arrived, he did have Liverpool playing a 4-2-3-1, though that was primarily due to the players he had on hand. Still, and double pivot of Thiago and Fabinho could be enticing in this formation.

A switch to a 4-2-2-2 would be a bit more of a drastic shift, though it could be an interesting way to get space on the flanks for Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to move into. Naby Keita thrived as one of two holding midfielders in this system at Red Bull Leipzig, and it could be a very dynamic partnership with Thiago here if Fabinho were to be lost to injury for a period of time.

While there is still not certainty as to whether Liverpool will actually launch a bid for Thiago, what we can see is that he would immediately come in and make one of the best teams in the world even better based on talent alone. Thiago would be a shorter term option of course, but Liverpool may be looking to strike while the iron is hot and continue their current dominance. There is going to be a lot of fixture congestion due to the covid pandemic, so there should be plenty of minutes to go around should Klopp choose to rotate more often to keep people fresh, and Thiago is a versatile enough player that he would give Klopp a plethora of options for his line ups and tactics.