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Can Thiago Play Liverpool’s Heavy Metal Football?

The arrival of the Spanish midfield maestro was supposed to signal an evolution to Liverpool’s game. Instead the former Bayern Munich star seems out of step, and the Reds’ title defense is all but over.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two convincing 3-1 wins in London may have restored a little chill, a little gelassenheit, at Liverpool after their run of five Premier League games with just one goal and three points. But after a second straight 1-0 defeat at Anfield, blunted on Wednesday by a savvy Brighton, we need to talk about the team’s wider direction. Which means we need to talk about Thiago Alcântara. First, though, a brief history of heavy metal football on Merseyside, and the possibility of musical (and footballing) evolution.

When Jürgen Klopp, the Rammstein-loving Swabian manager arrived in October 2015, he promised a football based on emotion—“heavy metal football” with big riffs and furious gegenpressing. He had the vision but lacked the personnel to realize it: Christian Benteke is not chiefly renowned for his deftness as a false nine, while Daniel Sturridge’s on-field energy has never suggested a willing leader of the counter-press.

Two years of rehearsals and shows in small venues brought memorable highs—the 4-3 Europa League win over Borussia Dortmund in that first season was a portent of things to come—but the football was spiky and chaotic. Punky. Thrilling, but niche. An eighth-place finish in Klopp’s debut season was followed by a sophomore campaign in which the thrumming bombast of the Klopp-ball sound was further refined into a fourth-place spot. However, the now-seminal gig when everything came together took place on January 14, 2018, two weeks after Virgil van Dijk’s arrival, when Pep Guardiola’s 100-point Manchester City team (played 22, won 20, lost none at that stage) found themselves 4-1 down at Anfield with seven minutes left. It was full-on sonic assault.

Liverpool would dispose of City in the Champions League three months later before eventually losing the final to Real Madrid. After a final tweak to the lineup, with Alisson replacing the traumatized Loris Karius in goal, they were ready for two seasons of sustained, platinum-selling, stadium-rock brilliance: a 97-point campaign with one defeat and a Champions League trophy, and a 99-point, Premier League–winning season that ended 30 years of hurt. Where do you go from there? For Radiohead, after the alt-rock apogee of OK Computer, the answer was the experimental Kid A. Liverpool signed Thiago, looking for a new dimension, something beyond those familiar power chords.

Having spent a few seasons casting the occasional yearning glance at Kevin De Bruyne relentlessly bending games to his will, Liverpool wanted their own maestro of the midfield. More specifically, they wanted a player who could unlock low-block defenses in the Premier League and provide control on the road in the Champions League. The latter’s high-end chess matches were the sole black mark on those two sublime seasons. Between winning 2-1 at the Etihad in March 2018 and signing Thiago in September 2020, Liverpool had won four away games in the Champions League (the only success against genuinely top-class opposition came in a 3-1 victory over Thiago’s Bayern Munich) and lost seven (defeats at Roma, twice at Napoli, Red Star Belgrade, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid).

Add an objectively brilliant footballer to an objectively brilliant team and there can be only one outcome, right? Well, not quite. In football, the relationship between the parts and the whole is subject to a complex alchemy, the result less of the properties of the parts than their interactions. Bolting on a hi-spec part to a slick machine does not guarantee improvement. In 2001, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson decided to add Juan Sebastián Verón to his midfield Beatles—David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, and Ryan Giggs—and a team that had won three straight titles finished third. Four years later, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich gifted Jose Mourinho’s back-to-back champions with what turned out to be an aging Andriy Shevchenko. (Roman is not the only Russian plutocrat to look covetously at prime Ukrainian real estate.) The addition upset the chemistry, and the team slipped off its perch. Thiago’s arrival at Liverpool, then, was something of a gamble, one that not everyone felt was necessary.

The key to Liverpool’s thrilling two-season apex was the power, speed, and slipperiness of Mo Salah and Sadio Mané, making those out-to-in runs into the space made by Roberto Firmino, Klopp’s “connector,” dropping into a false nine position. On second thought, Firmino’s selfless movement and tireless ball recovery was equally key—as were the supply lines provided by Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold playing high, in the wide spaces vacated by Salah and Mané as the latter darted into the spaces vacated by Firmino. Actually, scratch that: The real key was the tactical discipline of the two “free 8s,” Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum, covering the sides for those marauding fullbacks, supporting the counter-press, making themselves available in buildup. Actually, no, come to think of it, the true key was the speed and one-on-one abilities of van Dijk and Joe Gomez, which allowed the high defensive line that enables a counter-pressing team to remain compact (and you can throw in the odd lasered 60-yard pass to Salah and Mané when the team wanted to go more vertical). Actually, thinking about it some more, the absolute essence of it all was Fabinho, sitting at the back of midfield, covering the two 8s and screening the center backs from the type of counterattacks a team committing seven bodies to buildup might face. Yes, it was all about Fabinho. Him and the other nine. And Alisson.

All of which is to say that Klopp’s championship team was a truly holistic entity, unusually dependent upon the interactions and affinities of its parts. The attacking patterns became familiar, predictable even—there were “No Surprises”—but the speed and power of their implementation overwhelmed opponents, who learned that being forewarned didn’t necessarily mean being forearmed.

After January’s 1-0 defeat to Burnley ended a 68-game unbeaten Premier League run at Anfield, Liverpool legend Didi Hamann voiced concerns over Thiago’s suitability, claiming the Spaniard was slowing Liverpool down. The bald facts were that his five Premier League starts had yielded no victories. Only a substitute appearance at Chelsea brought three points. Was this causation or mere correlation?

Complex systems based on interactions are notoriously difficult to analyze. If one part malfunctions, it affects the whole. Had Thiago disturbed the ecosystem, or was he merely a bystander when various other factors—all of which should caveat any verdict—were at play? These caveats include: a negligible preseason, Thiago’s own lengthy injury layoff after the Richarlison tackle in the Merseyside derby, absences elsewhere in the team disrupting its balance, the secondment of Fabinho to center back (the ancient prophecies have foretold that one day the first-choice center backs will be available), and, more generally, the time needed to adapt to a team’s rhythms.

During his seven-year stay in Munich, Thiago’s deployment was generally as a deep-lying playmaker, a regista in what Klopp calls “a double six.” A regular colleague at Bayern, compatriot Xabi Alonso, was another regista who had of course played this role for Liverpool, albeit alongside a ball-winner in Javier Mascherano, with Steven Gerrard at number 10 in Rafa Benítez’s 2008-09 vintage 4-2-3-1. This is not Klopp’s midfield configuration, though (which he would have known when he sanctioned the signing), so asking where Thiago fits in the puzzle is legitimate, and Hamann’s theory cannot simply be dismissed.

What did seem clear over that five-game winless run was that Thiago’s operating at the back of the midfield wasn’t working—both with and without the ball. Playing as no. 6, he hasn’t offered enough protection to the center backs when Liverpool lose the ball. (His tackling is in the Paul Scholes mold, his pressing often late.) In possession, there were times he played through the lines with sharp passes, but often after forwards had withdrawn and the midfield were still goalside of the ball. However, the real problem with Thiago playing deep—particularly against teams that sat off, as Manchester United, Newcastle, Burnley, and West Brom all did—was not only about passing in areas that don’t always hurt the opposition. You also lose the benefit of his dancing feet.

In this Liverpool team, only Mané offers a genuine dribbling threat when faced with static defenders in tight areas. Salah is a wriggler, chronically averse to going on his right foot, whose real threat emerges in transition, when defenders are retreating into large spaces. Thiago’s footwork and liquid hips are exactly what a team facing a low block needs in order to take a man out of the game, to break what German coaches like to call “the defensive organization.” Aside from counterattacks, this quality is not especially valuable 50 meters from goal, even more so when the front three’s close-quarters combinations are misfiring and another way through is needed.

The obvious conclusion is that Thiago has to play further forward. Klopp seemed to grasp this in his selection for the trip to Spurs, where Wijnaldum played at no. 6, with Thiago and Milner alongside. (Joel Matip and Henderson were needed at center half, of course.) The same configuration started against Brighton, too. At West Ham, they played 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1/1): split strikers ahead of a midfield diamond, with Wijnaldum playing at the base, Xherdan Shaqiri at the tip, Thiago and Milner at the sides, the carrilleros. This was, coincidentally, the formation Milan played against Liverpool in Istanbul: Andrea Pirlo at the base, Kaká at the tip, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso at the sides. Liverpool are unlikely to play this system, or a classic 4-2-3-1, in the long term, not with the current personnel. They therefore have no real use for a typical regista.

When Fabinho returns to his regular beat, the only question will be whether they recalibrate the midfield trio so that Thiago plays in advance of the other two (in a quasi 4-2-3-1, or a 4-3-3 with the point of the triangle inverted), or whether he continues as an 8. Either solution will cost something in the counter-press, but should be offset by having a high-caliber creative force in more dangerous areas of the pitch. This Liverpool system needs him to be an Andrés Iniesta, not a Pirlo. Fast feet, fast brain, short passes.

Much of the intrigue around Thiago’s stuttering integration into this finely-tuned red machine lies in him being a potential cipher of Liverpool’s evolution under Klopp. He is this team’s Kid A. Should persistent rumors about Salah’s departure for one of Spain’s big two transpire (and it looks likely the perennially underappreciated Wijnaldum will be at Camp Nou next season), with Liverpool then bringing in another elite forward, one perhaps capable of playing as an out-and-out no. 9—Kylian Mbappé’s name has been linked, a signing that would be feasible only with the sale of an established star—then a change of system could well emerge: a 4-2-3-1 with Thiago as a 10, flanked by Mané and Diogo Jota in a fluid three-quarter line, and Fabinho and Henderson as a double pivot. Among the speculation and the moving parts, though, Liverpool fans want (or need) to see Thiago deliver in the present—beginning, ideally, with bossing the game against his former Barça and Bayern boss’s Man City team this Sunday.

The adaptation of Thiago to Klopp-ball, and vice versa, was always going to take a little time. It will require the other high-end parts of the precision-engineered machine to return, everything in its right place, at which point Klopp’s Liverpool 3.0 may yet go on to produce its true meisterwerk, its In Rainbows, Thiago and the other pieces of the jigsaw falling into place.

Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, Vice, ESPN, i-D and New Statesman, among others.