Coming off two of the greatest seasons in the club’s history, this offseason Liverpool has been left pondering the following question: How do you improve on the best?
That Liverpool could in theory improve is obvious. Any team could be better, whether it’s by adding a new, better starter or signing a starting-caliber bench player to firm up the rotation and mitigate potential injuries. But how exactly a team chooses a strategy for improvement, and how much money it’s willing to spend for an upgrade, and whether any of the players on the market are worth it from a talent and fit and budget perspective to merit signing—these matters are much less clear. And while it was beginning to look like Liverpool was content to just sit pat this summer and eschew any outside additions, the Reds have reassured fans worried about any potential stagnation by signing Thiago Alcântara, who is just about the perfect new piece Liverpool could’ve asked for.
(The Thiago deal isn’t quite over the line yet, since the club has yet to announce it. But with the Athletic’s Liverpool whisperer James Pearce saying all the involved parties have agreed to terms, and with Bayern Munich chairman Karl Heinz Rummenigge himself confirming that a deal has been struck, this seems to be about as done as done can get. We reserve the right to eat our shit if these two are wrong and Thiago ends up at Newcastle instead.)
There are two things manager Jürgen Klopp values above pretty much all else: hard work and versatility. Thiago has demonstrated across his career, first at Barcelona and then at Bayern, that he has both in spades. He’s almost always been part of a hard-pressing team, albeit usually in a team more akin to Pep Guardiola’s controlled chaos than Klopp’s “heavy metal football” defending. Thiago might not bring quite the same energy as some of Liverpool’s other midfield options, but he certainly won’t be a weak link there.
Thiago can also play either of the two midfield roles available in Klopp’s usual 4-3-3 setup, either as the deepest midfielder or one of the two more advanced ones. The Spaniard is a master at the base of midfield, where he controls his team’s possessions from the start of the build-up, though he’s also more than capable of playing between the lines further up field. Wherever Thiago plays, he guarantees you a weapon to organize possessions, break pressure, control the match’s tempo, shift the opposing defense around with short and long passes, and create space and chances for his teammates with his passing, movement, and dribbling. There isn’t a more complete midfield maestro on the planet.
Not only are Thiago’s controlling skills amongst the best in the world, they are also precisely what the Pool Boys have most lacked. If the Reds have had a flaw during these past two seasons of greatness, it has been the way they struggle to break down opponents who hunker down in their own penalty areas and deny Liverpool the space on the wings and in behind that the team usually feasts on. To beat those kinds of deep defenses, usually teams need to dominate the center of the pitch. The players most adept at dominating the center are midfielders comfortable in tight spaces, with the ability to ping the ball back and forth right in front of the penalty area until an opening finally appears, upon which time they can slip in the killer pass.
Liverpool’s current crop of midfielders lack those gifts. Instead of putting much creative or possession burden on the midfielders, Klopp has instead instructed his central players to behave as the team’s workhorses, having them run down second balls, press high and hard, and move deep and wide to compensate the movement of the forwards and full backs who do the actual creative work. The unreal assist numbers Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have racked up the past couple seasons (25 for the former, 23 for the latter) speak directly to the fact that Liverpool’s midfielders are not the team’s creative hubs.
As Liverpool’s results show, this style of play has worked fantastically for them. However, teams are already starting to figure out how to stymie Liverpool’s wing-focused attack, and it’s always better to develop a Plan B before Plan A is completely outmoded. The mere existence of a central creative threat will itself curtail attempts to sell out to disrupt Plan A, and also Plan B’s calmer possessions will be less taxing on the players’ minds and legs, which could very well save some wear and tear. It’s the way Thiago pretty much single-handedly solves Liverpool’s issues and presents a new way of playing that make him such a huge get. Adding a player of his caliber almost feels like cheating; you couldn’t design a better fit for Klopp’s system if you tried, and the €30 million it cost to sign him is unbelievably good value for the money.
Liverpool could have rested on its laurels and the goodwill from winning the club’s first league title in 30 years, the year after winning the Champions League, and they probably still would’ve been co-favorites to win the title again this year. But a truly big club—the kind of club Liverpool kept pretending it still was during that 30 year drought—doesn’t act like that. The biggest, best clubs win and then reload no matter what, even if it means taking a great player from another one of the truly big clubs.
Liverpool was able to rejoin the ranks of the best of the best with savvy transfer dealings, by finding ways to get better even when losing star players (see Suárez, Luis, and Coutinho, Philippe) to their betters. This time, Liverpool has made the case that there are no “betters” in the game by taking Thiago away from Bayern. In that way the signing is a powerful statement of intent from a new Liverpool, one that is now both better and bigger than before.