KOP END SPECIAL: THIAGO ALCANTARA – THE ‘IDEA BALLER’- BY PETER

@thiago6 – Twitter

The announcement of signing Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich on the 18th of September was big. It was a statement of intent from the Champions to regain their Premier League trophy. This was a marquee signing which put the league on notice. He was almost guaranteed to hit the ground running. Wayne Rooney stated “if Liverpool get Thiago from Bayern Munich, I think the title is done. That is a better signing than Messi going to Man City.”

Unfortunately, it has not turned out like that. Thiago has had a disappointing start to his time at Anfield. After breaking a Premier League record at Chelsea in his debut, a serious knee injury at Goodison Park forced him to miss months of action. Since his return to action on December 30th, the Reds have slid down the table. This has caused ‘Football Twitter’ and the social media community to brand him with the name ‘Idea Baller’.  An idea baller is someone who plays football impractically, their ideas and thoughts don’t translate to effectiveness on the pitch. In other words, the passes and dribbles they do, are aesthetically pleasing but not necessarily needed. ‘Football Twitter’ isn’t the best source to get serious football analysis. However, it is somewhat damming a footballer of Thiago’s quality is being mocked.

@thiago6 – Twitter

Rewind to the 2020 Champions League final, Thiago had just put on a masterclass against Paris Saint-German in a midfield duo with Leon Goretzka. Thiago was on the top of the world, a year left on his contract and a multitude of offers from many European clubs. Funnily enough at 29 years old, Thiago doesn’t necessarily fit the FSG model. They previously have specialised in buying younger players, developing them, and increasing their value and ability. However, a player of his calibre and what he could bring to the team was a no brainier.

Liverpool’s primary creators are their fullbacks, who look to supply the forward line with different variations of crosses. Since the start of the 2018/19 campaign, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson have registered over 50 assists between them. However, the Reds form started to drop off after the Project restart and the squad needed a refresh. The idea was that Thiago would add creativity and incisiveness from the midfield.

Liverpool’s build-up play wouldn’t rely so heavily on the full backs, but the midfield would also contribute and feed the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. However, in my opinion, this is where the problem starts. There is a misconception that Thiago would add goals and assists to Liverpool however, he isn’t that type of player. The highest scoring tally the Spaniard has ever achieved in a season is 6. The people who believed he would add direct goal contributions were always going to be disappointed.

Thiago is an orchestrator, a midfielder who speeds up and slows down the tempo of play based on the game situation. He can add unpredictability to build up through his ball progression, ball retention, and close control dribbling. It can be argued Klopp lacks such a player in midfield. An example is Gini Wijnaldum, according to the Liverpool echo, last season he completed 90.7% of his passes which placed him sixth in the Premier League and third for midfielders, but he ranked 71st for total progressive passes.

Alexander-Arnold offered Liverpool the opposite; he placed top of the league for progressive passes ahead of second-placed Kevin De Bruyne, but as low as 234th for pass completion due to the high-risk nature of his passes. Thiago offers both as compared to those who have played at least the same number of minutes as him this season, Thiago ranks 19th for pass completion and top for progressive passes per 90. So, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for the “Idea Baller”.

@distancecovered – Twitter

What has gone wrong for Thiago?

Thiago 19/20 Bundesliga last season. Thiago 20/21 Premier League this season.
90% pass success rate last season. 90% Pass success rate so far.
1.5 aerials won per game. 1.2 aerials won per game.
1.9 interceptions per game.1.5 interceptions per game.
1.9 tackles per game. 2.4 tackles per game.
3 dribbles per game. 86% success rate. 1.4 dribbles per game.  74% success rate.
7 yellows all season in the league. 3 yellow cards in his first 8 starts.
0.9 Dribbled past per game. 1.2 dribbled past per game.
sofascore

Above, I have detailed some key statistics of Thiago’s time in the Premier League so far compared to his campaign in the Bundesliga last season and there are some stark differences. The Spaniard is a fantastic passer, so it’s not a surprise his passing accuracy has stayed the same however he’s defensive stats have taken a hit from the Bundesliga.

I believe this encapsulates how much Thiago has struggled with the physical and aggressive nature of the Premier League. Interceptions were a key part of his game in the Bundesliga however, they have gone down from 1.9 per game to 1.5 this campaign. This highlights the fact that the Premier League is played at a much faster tempo, and meaning interceptions don’t come as natural to the Spaniard. It’s also worth noting that Liverpool plays at a quicker pace than Bayern Munich, in terms of switching play and being more direct.

Another defensive stat I wanted to highlight was the fact Thiago is getting dribbled past more than he was in the Bundesliga. Liverpool control games and play higher up the pitch however, this leaves large spaces in behind and Thiago has to try to recover and kill counter attacks especially when playing as a defensive midfielder which isn’t what Liverpool bought him to do but circumstances have forced upon him.

The most worrying statistic for me is an attacking one. Thiago attempted 3 dribbles per game in the Bundesliga but now in the Premier League, he is attempting just 1.2 dribbles. Close control dribbling is a key part of Thiago’s abilities and there is a huge drop off now, highlighting the fact that he is stripping back parts of his game and not being his usual self. Along with the eye test, that statistic shows me he may be playing within himself or it may be an instruction from Klopp to simplify his game. Although Thiago does progress the ball with his passing, he can also do it through his dribbling, and it would bring an unpredictability which Liverpool and their attacking players could benefit from.

Putting things into context

Thiago has not had the brightest start to his Liverpool career and there are many contributing factors as to why. Arguably the 29-year old’s best performances against Chelsea and Everton away, have been when the Reds have had a settled 11. The midfielder came back from injury to an injury-stricken side, who had completely lost their spine. The likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez being unavailable, also Jordan Henderson and Fabinho being played out of position were always going to impact Thiago and his success. The Reds lost their elite safety net whilst adding Thiago into their midfield.

Also, with so many injuries, the Spaniard has had to play a whole host of roles in this ever-changing team. He came into this side as the deepest midfielder but didn’t have the legs to cover large spaces which is how Liverpool plays. He’s also been used in the eight position against West Ham & Tottenham and also in a double pivot at times. Unusually, it has taken Klopp a while to find Thiago’s best position in this team and it can be argued that he still doesn’t know it. Klopp has to take some blame for Thiago’s slow start as he has been using him in the same way he has used Wijnaldum and Henderson in the past when Thiago has different skill sets to both players which is very frustrating.

What can be changed?

@thiago6 on Twitter

Effectively, Thiago has been trying to settle in a “perfect storm”, which is almost impossible. Realistically, we won’t see the best of Thiago until the storm is over and he plays in a more settled side however, there are ways to get more out of a 2X Champions League winner. Klopp needs to settle on a position that highlights Thiago’s strengths and covers his deficiencies. Applying the same job specifications to Thiago, that the other midfielders have isn’t helpful.

Playing Thiago closer to the front three as an eight or sometimes a ten and getting him in advanced positions to join the front three is something Liverpool could benefit from. Being the fourth attacker when the team is attacking is something the Reds could capitalise on; Thiago’s ball progression and dribbling could solve the team’s problems in front of goal. It would also allow him to get more goal contributions.

Although it would require a change in formation, if you wanted to bring some more familiarity to Thiago’s game, it would probably be best to play him in a double pivot with some legs next to him such as a Wijnaldum, Fabinho, or Henderson and let him build a relationship with them. This was how he was used in Bayern Munich, as I’ve mentioned before he played in a two with Kimmich or Goretzka. Evidently, Thiago knows how to play this role and with some protection, he would be able to orchestrate again.

The way Thiago’s been used and positioned hasn’t been all to blame. He also has to look at himself and improve his performances for the club. We need to see the Spaniard regain his identity back and stop playing within himself. Thiago isn’t a ‘shuttler midfielder’ or just a ‘workhouse’. He needs to take the risks that got him the reputation of one of the best centre midfielders in the world, if he sees an adventurous through ball then he should play it, as there are enough midfielders at the club already who play side to side.

I would like to see Thiago’s dribblers per game surge up just like in the Bundesliga, it’s normal for new signings to take time to adjust however, he has been a watered-down version of himself. Once Thiago gains some more confidence and does what ‘brought him to the party’ he will no longer be an ‘idea baller’.

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