Why Thiago Could Be Liverpool's Robin van Persie
After losing the 2011-2012 Premier League title on goal difference to Manchester City, Manchester United looked to improve their firepower by signing Arsenal forward Robin van Persie.
The acquisition of the Dutchman — who arrived at Old Trafford for a fee of £22,500,000 — proved to be inspired with the Red Devils romping home to the title the next season, scoring the most goals and finishing eleven points over their Manchester neighbours.
Van Persie, who was 29 upon his arrival at United, scored 26 league goals that season and won the Golden Boot, handsomely paying off what many saw as a gamble by signing a player with a history of injuries entering his 30’s.
There are parallels between Liverpool’s great rivals pursuit of the Dutch international — a move conceived with the express intention of winning back the league title — and the Reds’ current attempts to sign FC Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara.
Both Thiago and van Persie were — or are — 29 and have — 0r had — a chequered injury history, but — given their relatively inexpensive values — they were players that both clubs felt they could — or in the Reds’ case, potentially can — roll the dice on and sign.
Whereas United wanted to acquire van Persie to help their domestic cause and address a weakness — if you could describe an attack that scored 89 goals in such terms — Liverpool, the reigning English Champions, could look at Thiago as the antidote to the issues that undermined their attempts to retain their Champions League crown last season.
The Reds crashed out of Europe 4-2 on aggregate to Atletico Madrid at the last 16 stage, after not being able to manufacture enough high-quality chances against the obstinate and stodgy Spaniards over the course of the two legs.
Keeper Adrian’s huge errors at Anfield played their part in the defeat, of course, but given Liverpool’s territorial and possessional dominance — 71%, which yielded 34 shots, with 11 on target — they ought to have put the tie to bed and the Spaniard’s mistakes would have only been a slight blemish on another famous Anfield European night.
Diego Simeone — using the same tactical template that Carlo Ancelotti administered to guide his Napoli side to a win and a draw over the Reds in last season’s group stage — set up his charges in a compact, deep sitting 442 formation.
With the full-backs and the wide-midfielders doubling up and playing in a disciplined manner, Liverpool’s main creative sparks — Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson — had their threat nullified without any space to play in.
The Reds, by dint of Atletico not actively wanting the ball in the name of defensive solidity, controlled possession, but the visitors — crucially — controlled territory and forced the hosts to play in parts of the pitch that wouldn’t hurt them.
By investing such resources to stopping the threat from wide, logically, there would be spaces opened up in the middle of the pitch, but Liverpool — without any players who are comfortable with receiving the ball in congested areas and playing penetrating passes in the central band of the park — weren’t equipped to take advantage of this.
Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, and Naby Keita are all excellent players who all bring different attributes to the table, but none — with the exception of Keita — offer the ability to receive the ball in tight areas, coupled with the capability to turn out of trouble and play line-breaking passes like Thiago.
In last season’s Bundesliga, the Spain international, according to FBref, successfully received the ball 96% of the time, which highlights his hunger for possession and his bravery — no doubt honed in the Barcelona academy — to accept passes under pressure.
In scenarios like the Atletico Madrid defeat — a similar feat of tactical neutering that was replicated, to varying degrees of success, by Arsenal, Napoli, Everton, and Manchester United last season — Thiago could provide the passing incision and positional nous to get the Reds on the attacking front foot and bring Robertson and Alexander Arnold into the play in more dangerous areas.
Should Liverpool finally agree a fee with Bayern and bring the Spaniard to Anfield, the Reds could well take a leaf out of United’s book — mirroring the domestic impact van Persie had at Old Trafford — and use their new signing to give them the impetus to win back their continental crown.