Football Features

Thiago Alcantara, a talent to rival De Bruyne and give Liverpool the edge over Man City

By Muhammad Butt

Thiago Liverpool transfer analysis

Published: 17:08, 18 September 2020 | Updated: 13:50, 5 December 2022

Liverpool are close to signing Thiago Alcantara, which should terrify their opponents.

The Reds are one of the best teams in the world because they can beat you any number of ways. This versatility in victory, their ability to adjust to opponents’ weaknesses and do what they have to in order to win is exactly what led them to rack up 196 points in two seasons as they won the 2018/19 Champions League and 2019/20 Premier League.

But title rivals Manchester City have always had one thing Liverpool don’t: a world-class playmaker in central midfield.

It’s not so much a weakness as a tactical choice on Jurgen Klopp’s part. Where many elite sides play through creative midfielders, a couple of years ago Liverpool decided to funnel chances through their full-backs and flood midfield with players instructed to – and we’re generalising a bit here – provide energy (Jordan Henderson), preserve possession (Gini Wijnaldum) and shield the back four (Fabinho).

Liverpool 4-3-3 average player positions

The attacking license this gives Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold makes Liverpool a tactical mismatch for basically everyone, as precious few sides are set up to stop constant double-teams down the flanks. It’s an overwhelmingly successful system, but any system’s effectiveness can only last so long without tactical revolution.

So if Liverpool needed to evolve and start matching rivals blow-for-blow in the middle on occasion, they’ve found a solution in Thiago, a genuine world-class star coming off a treble-winning season where he played some of his best football since leaving Barcelona in 2013.

That is a better signing than Messi going to Man City. – Wayne Rooney, speaking to talkSPORT, on the prospect of Liverpool signing Thiago

Alexander-Arnold and Robertson don’t need to worry about Thiago’s presence diluting their annual double-figure assist hauls. The Spanish midfielder doesn’t always play the final ball (in fact he didn’t assist a league goal in 2019/20). Instead, he puts teammates in positions to do so.

Over the last three Bundesliga seasons, he averages the most successful passes in the opposition’s half per 90 minutes (48.22) and second-most for passes played into the final third (12.81). And there’s a specific type of pass Thiago excels at that will be particularly adaptable to how Liverpool play.

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It’s not so long ago that Sam Allardyce called them a long-ball team and raking, accurate up-field passes are characteristic of Virgil van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold performances. Thiago has averaged more successful long passes per 90 minutes since 2017/18 than any Bundesliga outfielder and at a startlingly high 78% accuracy rate.

High-output passing is to be expected of the preeminent ball-player in the league’s most dominant side, but the other thing about Thiago is he’s not just a playmaker with an impeccable La Masia education; he also well and truly holds his own defensively, with exceptional output for interceptions and ball recoveries.

Then there’s his dribbling, which is just as economical as his distribution. Of the 348 players who attempted 50 or more take-ons in Europe’s top five divisions in 2019-20, Thiago has the second-highest completion rate (86%).

Premier League 2020/21 title odds with William Hill:

  • Manchester City (4/5)
  • Liverpool (9/4)
  • Chelsea (8/1)
  • Manchester United (14/1)

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Liverpool were already second-favourites to win the 2020/21 Premier League. But now they’ve signed a player capable of rivalling Kevin De Bruyne for the mantle of best midfielder in the league, surely they must be the favourites? Thiago setting the table for the likes of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Alexander-Arnold to play the final pass or take a shot? Sounds deadly.

Thiago is a genuinely miraculous signing for Liverpool. Recruiting more cover for the attack, specifically for Mane, and in central defence might seem more sensible, but taking their only “weak” point and filling it with one of the world’s finest in that position is an incredible statement of intent from the Reds. They’ve gotten even better and they’re coming to retain their title.