Thiago Alcantara was the stylish playmaker signed by Liverpool to provide an extra dimension to its midfield — to deliver those “special things,” as manager Jurgen Klopp put it.
Instead, the Spain international with the quick feet and even quicker footballing brain might be proving a problem rather than a solution for a team experiencing an extraordinary comedown from the high of winning a first English league title in 30 years.
Five months into his time at the ailing Premier League champions and Thiago has yet to taste victory at Anfield, the stadium that was once a fortress for Liverpool. In 13 games for the Reds since joining from Bayern Munich, he has been on the winning side on just four occasions.
While it’s hard not to point to Liverpool’s injury-stricken defense as the biggest factor in the team’s dramatic downturn — center backs Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are unlikely to play again this season — the effect that has had on its once-stable midfield arguably has been just as impactful.
As, perhaps, has the addition of Thiago.
With his vision and elegance on the ball, Thiago offers very different qualities to what Klopp already had at his disposal: the leadership and hard running of Jordan Henderson and James Milner, the relentless energy of Georginio Wijnaldum, the defensive protection of anchorman Fabinho.
Adding a playmaker like Thiago to such a well-oiled machine brought a different kind of rhythm to the midfield — and might have disrupted it.
There are some mitigating factors. After an eye-catching debut as a second-half substitute away to a Chelsea team already down to 10 men, Thiago was still getting used to the intensity of the English game when he was injured in the final seconds of Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Everton in mid-October — the same ill-fated match in which Van Dijk was hurt — and didn’t return until after Christmas.
With Fabinho and Henderson having to be redeployed as center backs in the absence of Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip, Thiago has had to play deeper than Klopp might have desired, charged with protecting the defense as much as instigating attacks with his range of passing.
That is not alien to Thiago — he occasionally played there for Bayern in its flexible midfield set-up — but he hasn’t proved disciplined enough in the role at Liverpool. Since the turn of the year, he has committed 21 fouls, six more than any other player in the Premier League, and had racked up three yellow cards in seven games before Saturday’s trip to Leicester.
At the King Power Stadium, he came on as a substitute after an injury to Milner and gave away what proved to be a game-changing free kick on the edge of the area, from which James Maddison scored to make it 1-1 in the 78th and launch Leicester’s fightback to a 3-1 win.
Klopp called Maddison’s goal a “turning point,” saying his team had the game under control until then, and an angry Henderson voiced his unhappiness at Thiago for giving away the free kick.
The previous weekend, when Liverpool was beaten 4-1 by Manchester City, Thiago was booked in the third minute for a rash, late challenge on Ilkay Gundogan. The Spanish midfielder had also fouled Timo Werner to concede a penalty against Chelsea on his debut.
So, is Thiago simply the right player at the wrong time for Liverpool? Maybe his transition to the Liverpool way would have been easier if he didn’t have defensive responsibilities foisted upon him and he could play slightly further forward.
He was only on the bench against Leicester, having been substituted just after the hour mark against City.
It’s in the Champions League, which Liverpool resumes on Tuesday with a first-leg match against Leipzig in the last 16, where Thiago might come into his own for Klopp’s team because of his style of play and the more strategic nature of the competition.
A Champions League winner with Bayern, he will know all about Leipzig, too, because of his time in the Bundesliga.
“I’m sure he’ll be telling us one or two things over the next 24 hours to help us,” Henderson said Monday.
“He is a phenomenal player. Hopefully he can keep improving each time he plays for us and get used to be way we play as a team.”
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