A detailed look at how the Bayern Munich playmaker Thiago Alcantara could impact Liverpool's build-up play through midfield...
Saturday 19 September 2020 00:04, UK
The commentator was just saying how comfortable Paris Saint-Germain were looking when it happened. "They are quite happy for Bayern to have the ball in their half," he said. But it was at that precise moment that Thiago Alcantara weaved his magic, firing a crisp pass between the lines.
The ball was in the back of the net seconds later. The goal was enough to win the 2020 Champions League for Bayern Munich and while scorer Kingsley Coman was the official man of the match, the role of Thiago in the team's triumph escaped absolutely no one.
At 29 and reluctant to sign a new contract, Bayern realised they might have to sell. Liverpool are now ready to pounce and it is easy to see why the move might appeal. Jurgen Klopp's side can do almost anything. But they cannot do what Thiago can do.
"Liverpool's squad is fine in most areas," Jamie Carragher recently told Sky Sports. "But l think there are a couple of glaring areas where it should be better than it is."
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Cover for Andrew Robertson has already arrived. Attacking depth would help. But a midfield creator could be transformative. Naby Keita brings some of those qualities, albeit slightly further forwards, but think of that midfield and one still suspects industry is valued over invention.
It has hardly been a problem, whether it is Fabinho cracking one in from 30 yards or Jordan Henderson driving the team on to glory at home and abroad over the past 18 months. It has come to be seen as the Liverpool way. A decision to focus on the flanks. A style that works.
Which is what makes the link with Thiago so fascinating.
He is the Spanish pass master with Brazilian roots and a Barcelona upbringing. A man at home in the midfield hot house, seemingly born to work in those tight spaces.
Pep Guardiola gave him his professional debut and it shows. He was the one who first took him to Munich. "He is the only player I want," said Guardiola at the time. "It will be him or no one."
That was seven Bundesliga titles ago. A period in which Thiago has become a symbol of the shift as Bayern have totally dominated the league - and with it the football.
He might be seen as a Guardiola player, but he is now expected to find himself in a Klopp team. Even though the German has adapted his own approach in recent years, there remains a difference. Perhaps that is the whole idea. Thiago brings new qualities.
He averaged 82.6 completed passes per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga this past season - the most of any regular midfielder. He had a pass completion rate in excess of 90 per cent - an accuracy level that does not really reflect the range of his passing with both feet.
Those numbers hint at the sort of metronomic use of the ball through midfield that has come to characterise Guardiola's Manchester City. Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan completed the most passes per 90 minutes by midfielders in the Premier League last season. They were followed by Chelsea's Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. No Liverpool player came close.
That should come as no surprise. It is indicative of Klopp's use of his midfield. The passing networks during Liverpool's title-winning season reveal the plans behind their build-up play.
The ball is spread from the centre of defence to the full-backs out wide. Their job is to raid forward and connect directly with the team's attackers. The role of the midfielders in this system is often to cover those advances, recycle possession and prevent the counter.
It is rare that Liverpool use the centre of midfield to penetrate the opposition penalty box directly. The passing sonars for the team highlight the fact that the more ambitious delivery comes from the full-backs and the wide forwards. In midfield, the passes go sideways.
As a result, the threat level when Liverpool have the ball in the middle of the pitch is indirect. When the ball is in those areas, the plan is to move it out wide once more in search of an opening, stretching the play and creating spaces for Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
The contrast with City is illustrated by the through-balls completed by Kevin De Bruyne. He made 13 such passes last season, more than three times that of any Liverpool player.
Thiago's inclusion would not change all that. He is more than capable of keeping possession and playing his part in this game of ball circulation. Where he could help Liverpool is by moving the ball with one and two touches, opening games up against deeper defences.
That could be an attraction for Klopp when the wide route to goal has been shut down with opponents content to defend the perimeter of their penalty box. Thiago picks passes others cannot - a consequence of a lifetime spent threading the needle for Barca and Bayern.
It would be a new challenge, trading his job with the new European champions for one with the reigning conquerors of the Premier League and the world. Thiago would have to adapt to Liverpool rather than the other way around. The ball might not reach him quite so often.
It is not just the fact that Bayern play more passes than the rest. For every seven passes completed by his team per 90 minutes last season, Thiago was making one of them. For Georginio Wijnaldum, despite being similarly diligent in retaining possession, that number for Liverpool was only one in 12. The patterns of play are different.
The tendency at Liverpool is to bypass the middle of the pitch more often, playing around them rather than into the feet of the sitting midfielder. It is why other qualities such as winning the ball back and pressing opponents are of such great importance to Klopp.
Thiago will need some of that but he might just change Liverpool a little too. Perhaps Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez would look to him rather than Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Maybe Mane and Salah would bounce passes back rather than look to go it alone.
Thiago is not a typical Liverpool player but that is what has made the speculation so intriguing. He would add a new dynamic. And that could be bad news for everyone else.
A version of this article was originally published on August 24, 2020