Thiago Signing Indicates Lijnders’ Growing Influence
Finally, after an interminable series of “updates” on Thiago Alcantara’s future, Liverpool have agreed a fee of £27,000,000 with FC Bayern for the Spanish international.
Precisely no one will miss the daily reports telling us — with the wording changed, to disguise the fact there was nothing new being said, after consulting a thesaurus — that the Reds wanted the Spaniard and he was keen to only join Liverpool but the transfer powers that be at Anfield didn’t want to pay Bayern’s asking price.
Pending the confirmation of the deal, Thiago will become the first major signing the club has made since Alisson arrived from AS Roma in the summer of 2018.
And the capture of the former FC Barcelona midfielder, 29, is an indicator of the growing influence of Pepijn Lijnders at Liverpool.
It’s not that playmaking midfielders is a profile of player that Jurgen Klopp shies away from; after all, at Borussia Dortmund, the German used Nuri Sahin and Ilkay Gundogan as the poets in a team mostly comprised of pugilists.
But throughout his stint in charge of the Reds, Klopp — to great success — has structured his midfield to be, first and foremost, stodgy and defensively robust.
Now, though, Thiago’s impending arrival will see the evolution of their midfield play and should — assuming the success of the signing — make the English Champions a more potent creative force.
This is a nod to Lijnders — an exponent of the Dutch style of possession football — growing influence over the tactical makeup of the Reds.
Since returning to the club in the summer of 2018 — replacing Klopp’s long-term trusted lieutenant Željko Buvač — after a stint managing in his native Netherlands, there has been a notable change in the way Liverpool play.
The off the ball, claustrophobic intensity has been retained, but a patient, probing style of ball recycling possession football has been added to Liverpool’s toolbox.
Teams were and are petrified of the pace of the Reds’ front three — Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino — and ceded possession of the ball and sat deep as a means to nullify the threat of the attacking trident.
This meant that — accidentally and not necessarily by design — Liverpool were, whether they wanted to be or not, a possession team. Knowing this, the Reds had to use to turn the opponents gameplan against them.
Last season, the Anfield men — second only to Manchester City — averaged 63% possession, which is a stat contrary to the ideals of the heavy metal football that Klopp is famed for. In Buvac’s final season as the Reds’ assistant manager, the possession figure was 60%, highlighting Lijnders’ influence.
The Dutchman hinted at the need to change approach in an interview with a Dutch newspaper last month. Speaking to AD, the Reds’ assistant manager said:
“Every opponent makes the middle closed for us, so the space is on the sides. Openings must come from there. Trent and Robbo literally give us wings. But the rotten thing is: teams are already trying to stop that. It is up to us to remain unpredictable. We have used the corona time to good effect. There was time to work on new variants, bringing boys in a different role and in different spaces in training and seeing what the effect is.”
Thiago, a key component in the ball monopolizing tactics of both Pep Guardiola and Hansi Flick, will strengthen this newfound style of football even further and stave off the stasis and complacency that can creep into successful teams.
Per FBRef, the Spain international — so intelligent in his manipulation of space and his positional awareness — received the ball successfully 96% of the time last season and, always playing on his toes and on the half-turn, was a key factor in helping the Bavarians giants, so accustomed to teams sitting deep against them, progress the ball between the lines on the way to a treble.
The neutering strategies employed by Diego Simeone in the Champions League last season — especially in the first leg in Madrid — saw his Atletico Madrid knock Liverpool off their European perch. Carlo Ancelotti — twice with Napoli and once with Everton — also stymied the Reds’ attacking flow successfully with a similarly rigid 442 formation.
Thiago, who would distort the defensive shape on teams between the lines, could have changed the course of these games by taking the centre of creative gravity away from Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson and allowing them to join the game higher up the pitch.
The Spaniard’s signing is Liverpool evolving before it’s too late and Lijnders is likely a key architect of this change.