When Liverpool signed Thiago Alcântara for only £20m in 2020, it was lauded by many as a deal of exceptional value. Thiago, still in his 20s, joined with an honours list as long as his arm. Four La Liga titles from his time at Barcelona, complemented by seven successive Bundesliga triumphs. Add in two Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups, and numerous domestic cups, and you get one of the best midfielders in Europe.
Nevertheless, while Thiago’s quality wasn’t in doubt, question marks remained, with many wondering how such a silky, creative midfielder would fit in with Klopp’s heavy metal football. Klopp, famously, doesn’t use playmakers. The German manager once explained that his side’s pressing is more effective than any playmaker could be, and it’s true that a mercurial creator would struggle to fit into a Klopp side. The setup clearly works too, with Liverpool favourites for the vast majority of matches they contest on sites like Betdaq.
A Klopp side is full of hard running, athletic players. His heavy pressing style needs players who can cover ground throughout the length of a game, and who will regularly win their duels. On top of that, his tactics tend to eschew creating chances from the centre of the pitch. The wide attackers tend to be the main threats, as evidenced by the success that Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah have had during their time at Anfield, with creativity more likely to come from the full-backs than the centre of midfield.
The German has explained this tactical quirk before. As a manager so focused on winning the ball in dangerous positions, Klopp is well aware that giving away the ball in the middle of the park simply has to be avoided wherever possible. That means that his teams tend to keep things simple in midfield, and look to quickly switch the ball out to the wide areas when in possession.
Bearing this in mind, there were questions about how exactly Thiago, who excelled as a creative presence during his time in Germany, would transition into a physical, press-heavy side. The prototypical Liverpool midfielder in recent years has been a solid, dependable all-rounder. Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum come to mind.
We’ve seen Liverpool attempt to integrate a more attacking profile of midfielder before. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was signed from Arsenal as a strong athlete who could meet the demands of playing in Klopp’s side, while his ability on the ball meant he would be able to carry the ball out from midfield and add another dimension to Liverpool’s attacking play. Sadly, it never panned out that way, with Oxlade-Chamberlain unable to ever tie down a regular place in the side.
Naby Keïta was signed in 2018 in a deal worth approximately £50m, to try and offer what Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t. On his day, the former RB Leipzig man is capable of providing something extra to Liverpool’s midfield, but those days haven’t come often enough to make Keïta a key man for Klopp. His inconsistency has held him back, and with the Liverpool manager prioritising safety over creativity in the middle of the park, he’s been content for Keïta to play a bit-part role.
Seeing how previous attempts to integrate more technical midfielders have failed, eyebrows were raised when Liverpool tried the same trick with the purchase of Thiago. However, the former Bayern Munich man has come up trumps in the role. He’s had no problem adapting to the physical demands of playing as a midfielder in this Liverpool side, and he offers another angle of attack when Liverpool have the ball.
With their focus in possession often on switching the ball quickly out wide, long diagonals from Virgin van Dijk are a hallmark of Liverpool’s play. Thiago is able to offer the same switches of play in a more advanced position, and his close control and ability mean that he’s able to take risks on the ball without being punished, providing reliability where Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain provided risk.
His arrival at Anfield may have surprised some, but Thiago has settled right in, and is seen by many as arguably the best midfielder in Europe. The Spanish international has been a key figure in Liverpool’s quadruple chase, and may well reinvent what is expected from a Klopp midfielder.