Why Bayern Munich star is ‘significant upgrade’ on Wijnaldum, eases burden on Alexander-Arnold, and is a perfect match for Klopp
Liverpool may have just landed one of the few players in world football who can make them better: Thiago Alcantara.
The latest rumours suggest the Reds have agreed a £27m deal for the Bayern Munich star, beating Manchester United to his signature.
So, to find out more about the player and how he might fit in, we asked Total Football Analysis to give us the lowdown on the ex-Barcelona ace.
Liverpool boss Klopp views Thiago as a ‘highly technical and savvy player’ “Thiago oder nichts” – Thiago or nothing – were the famous words spoken by the then Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola prior to starting his first season with the German giants.
The sentiments were clear from Guardiola, he viewed the signing of Thiago from his previous club Barcelona, as integral to his ability to instill the type of game model that he saw as being ‘his’.
In the end the transfer went through, much to the upset of Barcelona fans, and Thiago became the centerpiece to the Bayern team that dominated under Guardiola.
What is interesting, however, is that as German football changed the game model of Guardiola, introducing concepts that were not evident in the Spanish game, it also changed Thiago.
Thiago is contracted at Bayern until 2021 but the German giants may want to cash in on him this summer Previously the Spain international midfielder had been seen as the prototypical Spanish midfielder. Comfortable dominating possession through one and two touch play and the heir apparent to Xavi in the great Barcelona team.
Now, however, Thiago is a different player. He is still incredible from a technical perspective with the ability to receive the ball under intense pressure while retaining possession but now he is a more aggressive passer of the ball with the tendency to always look for progressive passes into the final third.
Aged 29 years old Thiago is being strongly linked to a move to the English Premier League with Liverpool.
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What the data tells us
The first thing we need to figure out is what type of midfielder Thiago is and to do this we will turn to the data.
We have filtered data for all midfielders who have played at clubs in the top five European Leagues this past season and who have played more than 1,500 minutes. Straight away when looking at the filtered data we see Thiago’s profile emerge.
In terms of aiding his team to progress the ball through the thirds of the pitch Thiago is the clear outlier.
He has the most progressive passes per 90 (13.58) and the most passes to the final third per 90 (13.43) in the data set.
The Spanish midfielder is, along with the German international Joshua Kimmich, the key player for Bayern Munich in terms of the way that they progress the ball through the thirds.
He controls the game for the German champions, and this is where Liverpool perceive the value in signing him.
Getty Images - Getty
Thiago was taken to Bayern Munich by Pep Guardiola The concept of value in the transfer window is often misunderstood and of all top-level clubs there are few who understand its meaning better and recruit as well as Liverpool.
Value can be construed as signing players for a relatively small sum before making a significant profit further down the line, like Philippe Coutinho, or signing players for a small sum who play a key role in your sides success, like Andrew Robertson.
There is, however, a third way to view value, the signing of a player who immediately helps you to win games.
This is the category that Thiago would fall into and it is easy to see why when we consider the data for Liverpool through the prism of ball progression.
At the start of the 2019/20 season we saw a change of approach from Jurgen Klopp in terms of ball progression.
The right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold suddenly became an inverted wing-back in the right half-space and he was the main progressor of the ball, as you can see clearly from the chart above.
After Alexander-Arnold came the opposite side full-back, Robertson, who progresses the ball more via runs than passes. After the full-backs came the central-defenders with the likes of Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk often taking the responsibility to move high and progress the ball into the final third.
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In terms of midfielders, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita are the best ball progressors. Henderson, however, has a very specific role as he moves wide on the right to allow Alexander-Arnold to drift inside. Then the injury issues surrounding Naby Keita make it difficult for Klopp to fully rely on the Guinea international.
In terms of the deeper midfielders for Liverpool it is unlikely that Thiago would replace Fabinho who has been excellent as the No.6 this season. Giorgino Wijnaldum, on the other hand, is very much at risk from the potential signing of Thiago.
Getty Images - Getty
Wijnaldum is a fans’ favourite at Liverpool but could be displaced Thiago always receives in space
Something of a hybrid central midfielder, he tends to play as a No.8 for Bayern Munich in their 4-3-3 system.
But he continually drops deeper to receive the ball in the same line as a No.6 or even into the back line to help clean ball progression from the first line.
This is something that should be familiar to Liverpool fans as Wijnaldum often provides the same function in their midfield.
Thiago displays a clear tendency to drop away from opposition defenders when his side are in possession of the ball.
He makes these movements to support the man in possession but also to ensure that when he does take possession he is able to progress the ball.
There are few players in world football who ‘scan’ or ‘check their shoulder’ as often as Thiago and this ensures that he always has a picture of the opposition and his teammates when he takes possession of the ball.
We see an example of this above with Thiago checking back towards the ball in the left half-space and receiving the ball.
As the ball is played out to the Spaniard he has clear options and space in which to progress the ball.
He has a tendency to progress the ball through passing but can also drive towards the opposition in possession of the ball in order to force the opposition to move out and engage the ball carrier.
This, of course, creates space behind that can be exploited.
A similar situation here as Coutinho is coming under pressure in the centre of the field and we see Thiago, in the right half-space this time dropping to provide a connection.
Once again we see Thiago able to collect possession of the ball in space before moving the ball and progressing towards the penalty area.
Range of passing
Thiago is known primarily for being a progressive passer who shifts the ball using angles through the thirds but tends to connect shorter passes.
He also, however, has the passing range to access all areas of the field. This, combined with his tendency to collect possession of the ball in pockets of space, means that Thiago is able to change the angle and position of the attack with ease.
Again, in this match against Paderborn, we see Thiago receive the ball after dropping deeper to receive possession.
He takes the short pass out from the back line and when receiving the ball he is in space, despite the opponent moving to engage and put on pressure.
Thiago has the time and space to be able to look up and then change the angle of attack over to the underloaded side.
In this example, we see Thiago using a more creative solution in order to find space before changing the angle of the attack through a diagonal pass.
He plays a quick one-two with Coutinho which pins the defensive players deeper and then allows Thiago to have possession in a more central space.
As soon as he is in this position there is space on the far side of the pitch that Thiago can access through a diagonal pass.
Vision in the final third
For all that Thiago is a key progressor of the ball for Bayern from deeper areas he is also a creative passer in the final third.
This ability to find passing routes that break through teams that are content to sit in a deeper defensive block is integral to a team like Bayern, and would be for a team like Liverpool.
Here we see Thiago, having received the ball in space deeper and then pushing forward in possession of the ball, as he enters the final third the Union Berlin defensive block is poorly positioned and an attacker looks to make a vertical run to access the open space.
In these areas of the pitch Thiago has the vision and the weight of pass to access these spaces.
This time, in the match at home to Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern are chasing an equaliser late in the game and Thiago receives the ball centrally, in space again.
As he takes possession the opposition are looking to hold a defensive line on the edge of the penalty area.
Thiago, has the quality and vision to drop the ball into a pocket of space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper and he does so here.
As the forward is unmarked at the far side of the penalty area he makes a run that Thiago accesses through an excellent lofted pass.
Pressing and counter pressing
As well as being a threat in possession Thiago is also a perfect match for Jurgen Klopp out of possession.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a player who was educated at the Barcelona La Masia academy and who played under Pep Guardiola, Thiago is one of the best counter pressing midfielders in world football.
He constantly moves and engages the man in possession as his side lose possession in the final third and when he recovers possession he has the quality to play incisive passes that access the penalty area.
The above chart shows the ball recoveries from Thiago in the final third across the course of last season.
As you can see he is involved in pressing in these areas across the width of the pitch. His understanding of angles and pressing lanes are key in allowing the Spaniard to win the ball back in these areas.
The same report gives a graphic that shows all of Thiago’s recoveries in every area of the pitch.
As you can see he is a key player for Bayern in recovering possession. Given the preference for Liverpool to play with a relatively high press this should fit well with his preferences out of possession.
There is no doubt that the signing of Thiago would improve Liverpool.
The added option of a progressive passer in the deeper areas of midfield would give more flexibility for the English champions when they are trying to break teams down.
In this regard Thiago would represent a significant upgrade on the likes of Wijnaldum.
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