by Ben Stevens (@stev_ben)
Let’s get something straight. Thiago Alcantara is a world-class central midfielder at the peak of his powers. His performances in the latter stages of the Champions League last season were that of a conductor directing an orchestra – and that is why Bayern Munich are now 6-time winners.
For Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, at £25m (or 30m euros) move – as is rumoured to be the pipeline – would represent a supreme piece of opportunism in a complex and uncertain market. By missing out on the Spaniard, however, we would be depriving ourselves of the chance to evolve and add high-class competition to the ranks. This is a man who, this year alone, has played Chelsea, Barcelona and PSG’s midfields off the park
So, it perplexes me to see fans who monotonously say: ‘Why change a winning side?’ or ‘do we really need him?’ and ‘We already have quality midfielders, why do we need another?’
I see this as complacency. Whilst this squad won the Premier League last season, it is far from perfect, for sustained success is based on filling gaps and constant progression.
Thiago offers a whole host of talents and abilities, but above all, he brings versatility.
Many Liverpool games last season (however many of them we won) had a common theme; large periods of possession but a lack of sustained pressure/cutting edge. The majority of teams shut down the spaces in the final third and out wide, nullifying our front 3 and full-backs. I know, outrageous claim right? No, hear me out.
Unsurprisingly, our best performance of the season came away at Leicester; against an expansive, aggressive football team who play with risk, leaving acres of space for our attack to run riot. When, often, this was not possible, we were left slightly clueless beyond TAA and Robertson loading deep, early crosses into a box. Thiago’s laser vision and unique passing range would open up new avenues and relieve the creative burden on our full-backs, making us a more adaptable and threatening attacking prospect.
I am by no means discrediting our current midfielders, but simply acknowledging that for everything Wijnaldum and Henderson are, they are not incisive or creative passers of a football.
I envisage 3 possible Thiago-based line-ups. One very likely, one potential and one slightly outlandish.
4-3-3 Thiago in the 8
This our recipe for success under Klopp and it’s unlikely to change in the presence of Thiago. The balance of that midfield trio is mouth-watering. Henderson’s industry combined with Thiago’s energy and ability to break the opposition press is the perfect box to box combination. This could even give Henderson a new attacking license.
Where Wijnaldum is sometimes guilty of letting games pass him by, Thiago is a string-puller whose first thought is always forwards. Given Henderson’s strong running and underrated finishing prowess, it’s an exciting thought. Cast your mind back to the run of games in early 2019 where his place was under threat and he had 5 or 6 very effective games further up the pitch (it encourages him to move the ball quicker). Add into the equation an in-form, hungry Naby Keita, and you have something called competition. 4 top class midfielders competing for 3 spaces, each pushing the others to the next level.
4-2-3-1 The deep lying playmaker
You know those games against tight, compact 5-man midfields? The ones where we look about as threatening as Radamel Falcao in a United shirt? Yeah, this team is for those games.
The double pivot system is where Thiago has shone for Bayern. Furthermore, it is a formation that Klopp has occasionally but effectively utilised in games against lower quality opposition. Slide the Spaniard in alongside Fabinho and it is a duo that offers far more in these games than the previous combinations with Henderson or Wijnaldum. Where the latter pairs’ qualities lend themselves to the openness and toe to toe sparring of big 6 matchups, they lack the rare technical attributes that can unlock these ‘park the bus’ setups.
Of the world’s current crop of central midfielders, I cannot think of too many who are as proficient as Thiago when it comes to making the difficult passes between lines and creating attacks from deeper positions. He would be the ‘risk-taker’, without the element of risk. As opposed to enduring wave after wave of dead-ended possession in which Salah and Mane are starved of the ball, Thiago would be capable of feeding them in more dangerous areas. Firmino wouldn’t have to drop as deep to try and link play and this, in turn, would facilitate the USP of this formation, the remontada of the 10.
Although we don’t have a traditional no.10 in our squad (it’s a role that the game has fallen out of love with in recent times), I would love to see Keita in those spaces between the defensive midfielders and the centre backs, driving towards the penalty area and creating goalscoring opportunities for himself or others. As we saw against Chelsea, he has both the ability to strike a ball from range and the subtlety to thread passes through the eye of the needle. This is certainly an option I could see Klopp using during the campaign, and it may even give Minamino and Firmino the opportunity to thrive in behind the centre forward (Mo Salah anyone? More on that shortly).
4-1-2-1-2 The diamond??
Call me a hopeless romantic…a fantasist…maybe even deluded. But you’re intrigued, aren’t you?
The Rodgers diamond in 2013/14 produced some of the most scintillating football I have witnessed. Yes, we conceded 50 goals that season, but crucially, we no longer have a Toure, Skrtel, Johnson, or a Flanagan.
The biggest risk of this shape is the lack of width and the open spaces it leaves out of possession. However, we are blessed with two of the best full-backs in the league, both of whom have the engines to deal with the challenges it would bring. Thiago, Keita, Fabinho and Henderson are all excellent ball winners and could support the full-backs in those wide positions when the team is defending.
Actually, if you’ve watched us closely, you’ll know it’s already a key tenet of our midfield. Klopp’s philosophy is built around overturning possession and capitalising on the overloads that creates. It’s a ‘high risk, high reward option’. The reward being that once those lateral sprints and recoveries are successful, we have the ball on the halfway line with an unstoppable tide of ballplayers ready to unleash hell upon the opposition. The combinations and interchangeability of Keita, Thiago and Firmino in that trident would attract opposition players like moths to a flame, engineering space for the full-backs to bomb into. Fabinho could then drop back alongside the centre-halves to protect against counter-attacks.
The striking pair of Salah and Mane speaks for itself. Salah’s game is all about the positions he occupies, and this enables him to be in and around the box constantly, as he was in his debut season. This would be a front five who would simply run defence’s ragged, like lionesses stalking bison on the African plains.
It is certainly the least reliable and sustainable of the three systems and not one that will retain our title alone, but it’s a sort of, well, nuclear weapon I suppose. The button could be pushed in a European second-leg when in need of quick goals, or at half-time when losing by a couple.
Whilst these formations could, of course, be played without Thiago, his qualities (which seem to be all of our current midfielders rolled into one) make them more realistic options. They are tactical game-changers beyond substitutions. We are not a squad blessed with layers of quality depth, so rather than turning to Origi (4 goals in 28 appearances last campaign) or Oxlade-Chamberlain in moments of need, we can instead keep our best players out on the pitch in the crucial stages, whilst still instigating change in the game, making us more adaptable, more versatile.