Why Thiago has been Liverpool’s second best player this season

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Written by Charlie Ellis, with contributions from Rhys Desmond.

Liverpool have been utterly rampant this season on all fronts. With the strength in depth Jurgen Klopp has to offer in almost every position, the Reds look strong contenders to win each and every competition this season – going strong in the UEFA Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup. With an EFL Cup win already under their belts, a historic quadruple remains in their sights with a little over a month of action to play.

In terms of personnel leading the way toward that potential quadruple, it’s hard to dispute Mohamed Salah as the key component for the Reds, even despite his recent goal drought since AFCON. His silky contributions in the final third, movement off the ball, high-pressing intensity and exquisite finishing has taken Liverpool to new heights this year. But with so many other superstars playing to the highest level, there are questions to be raised about who has been the next most influential player for the Reds. So, to answer that question, may we introduce to you Thiago – one of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing playmakers of the past decade.

HOW THIAGO FITS IN KLOPP’S MIDFIELD

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While Georginio Wijnaldum offered a box to box mobility that played a crucial role in Liverpool’s midfield, Thiago is exactly the player the Reds had been missing under Jurgen Klopp’s era of dominance at Anfield. You may think they were already a well-oiled machine and in fairness, you wouldn’t be wrong with Klopp able to guide them to 4 major trophies within his first five years in charge. However, at times, his side could become predictable, and a difficult 2020-21 campaign exposed a greater need for defensive solidity in midfield.

Since his arrival in 2020, Thiago has amplified his already impeccable off the ball movement and defensive intelligence with the hands-on support of Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff. Having come from playing in a midfield two of a 4-2-3-1 system under Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich, Thiago needed to quickly learn his defensive and offensive roles in a well constructed three-man midfield.

“So we decided to adapt his position a little bit – that worked out pretty well, it gives us stability, gives him stability, we can use his football skills which are obviously outstanding.”Jurgen Klopp

THIAGO’S KEY ATTRIBUTES

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After an adjustment period in 2020-21, Thiago has adapted well in 2021-22, becoming more progressive in his long passing attempts. This very site was critical of Thiago’s sideways switches of play that only slowed Liverpool’s tempo last season, but it’s clear that the Spaniard offers Liverpool a sense of progressiveness that no other midfielder can match.

With an 80.8% long passing percentage and 9.62 progressive passes per 90, Thiago vastly outperforms his midfield partners, not to mention the bulk of the league. Naby Keita is the only one who can compare, but the difference in ability is clear as day and this element of Thiago’s game would be dearly missed if he were to come back out of the side. In fact, no other player in the Premier League, not even Thiago’s teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold, can match his progressive passing numbers on a per 90 basis.

In both recent encounters against Manchester City, Thiago bossed the midfield, with his exceptional vision on full display. City couldn’t get a foothold in the first forty-five this weekend in the FA Cup, with the Spaniard spraying passes left to right for fun.

He may not contribute many assists, but you will often see Thiago be the man to play the pass that opens up the game for the assist. Take this example of his exceptional range against Man City at the Etihad. Not many players would even envisage an opening to play this diagonal pass. But Thiago found the gap and split Manchester City’s team wide open. This long ball created the opportunity for Jota to equalize after an authoritative start from the Citizens.

When he does assist goals, it’s sure to be magnificent. He can be seen dropping deep and playing a risky pass to find Diogo Jota for the opening goal in the Premier League game vs Arsenal at the Emirates this season, showcasing his supernatural ability to pick out Liverpool’s highly esteemed forwards at the drop of a dime.

This range of passing allows the Reds to go straight from patiently playing it round the back waiting for their chance to attack, to adeptly forcing their opposition to reshape.

An excellent ball carrier in a Mateo Kovacic mold, Thiago Alcantara is also excellent at finding pockets of space to pick up the ball and drive as shown.

Take this weekend as a perfect example, where he combined brilliantly with Trent Alexander-Arnold before floating a pass into Sadio Mane for the Senegalese striker to volley into the back of the net.

DEFENSIVE AWARENESS & TACKLING

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While he’ll always stand out for his uncanny ability on the ball, it’s not just the vision and awareness from Thiago that stands out among the pack. The 31-year-old operates with a tireless work ethic off the ball. This is another area in which Rhys Desmond criticized Thiago’s game in the past – calling his tackling reckless and overzealous. His tackling success rate remains at just 29% this season, but his total number of fouls and times dribbled past have both dramatically decreased. Further, he’s been exceptional in Liverpool’s high-press, using his sporadic tackling and intense energy to his advantage.

Strong in the tackle, Thiago uses his tactical intelligence to position himself advantageously to aid Liverpool’s gegenpress. As part of Klopp’s zonal marking approach, Thiago has a clear understanding of his role in Liverpool’s midfield three, and only Keita stands out more when it comes to ‘defensive success’. With the Reds winning 16 of his 18 starts, his influence to Klopp’s midfield cannot be understated.

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Although Jordan Henderson has been and will continue to be a fundamental catalyst in this Reds side, the balance of the middle trio of Thiago, Fabinho and Naby Keita mustn’t go unnoticed. Henderson’s relentless pressing looks to be matched by a more intelligent approach from Naby Keita, combined with his superhuman abilities to dribble the ball. With Fabinho anchoring the back-four and breaking up the play, the balance in the team may be best achieved with this midfield three moving forward. Either way, Thiago has been essential in Liverpool’s recent rise, and quite possibly, the second best player in the team over the past few months.

conclusion

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Thiago has been a star for Jurgen Klopp’s side all season long, and is beginning to be one of the first names on the team sheet. His undeniable desire to fight every minute on the pitch combined with his outstanding technical ability has taken him right to the top of the list of Mo Salah’s second in command. The Spanish midfielder will be crucial to the remaining months of the season for Liverpool, as they chase down a record-breaking quadruple. Whether or not they can pull it off remains to be seen, but Thiago will be an essential piece to the puzzle either way.


So there it is! Our Thiago tactical analysis for 2021-22, with 17-year-old Charlie Ellis excellently combining with Rhys for the words behind this piece. Thanks to Charlie for an immense effort in his first article for the site, and be sure to check out more on Liverpool this season below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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