The medium to long term losses of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk and the continued inconsistencies in Joel Matip’s fitness record doesn’t only impact Liverpool in defence.
Of course, regularly not having three defenders of that calibre is harmful to a team’s prospects of keeping clean sheets. But it’s the Reds’ midfield that has borne the brunt of the defences injuries.
Fabinho, who has excelled in the new role that he’s learned on the hoof, has had to moonlight as a central defender and this means that the Brazilian — who is arguably the world’s finest defensive midfielder — has been missed in the heart of the engine room.
Both Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum have been deployed in the role that Jurgen Klopp calls “the 6” this season and have done so adequately, even if their talents are evidently better employed elsewhere, further up the pitch.
Thiago Alcantara, Liverpool’s statement summer signing from European champions FC Bayern, has also had to fill in as the deepest of the midfielders and this is the role he has played in each of his five appearances since returning from injury after Richarlison’s horror tackle in Merseyside derby in October.
The English champions’ record in those games? Draws with West Bromwich Albion, Manchester and Newcastle United and defeats to Burnley and Southampton.
In some quarters, Thiago’s signing and influence on the team on the team have been questioned in light of the Reds’ horrendous run of form — which also includes an FA Cup defeat away to United at Old Trafford.
Didi Hamann, among others, chimed in to say that he thought the Spaniard wasn’t suited to Liverpool or the way Klopp ideally wants to play football.
This narrative spectacularly misses the point of the 29-year-old’s signing and completely ignores the context of the unfamiliar, shielding role that the Spanish international has had to play.
As Pepijn Lijnders, the Liverpool assistant manager said, the Anfield team needed to sign someone to give them another dimension to their play. Wary of the threat of Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson — the full-backs who were delegated the responsibility of being the Reds’ assisters in chief — teams started to put significant effort into constipating the flanks and thus negating the space the duo had to play in.
It wasn’t a huge problem, per se, as Liverpool romped to their 20th league title last season but in Europe, where Napoli and Atletico Madrid both blunted the Reds attack with similar defensive tactics, the need to evolve and to add more strings to the team’s creative bow became obvious.
There was no player realistically available better suited to fulfill this function than Thiago and Liverpool broke with their usual policy of signing players 24 or under to acquire the 29-year-old from FC Bayern. The fact that the Bavarians — who stormed to a treble last season — were so keen to keep the Spaniard of Brazilian extraction is an indicator of his considerable talents.
Upon his appointment at the perennial Bundesliga winners in 2013, Pep Guardiola made Thiago — whom he was familiar with from their time together at Barcelona — his number one transfer target, and the club granted him his wish. That Guardiola, a midfielder of worldwide repute in his playing days, advocated so loudly for Thiago’s signing speaks volumes of his qualities as a player.
Since he arrived at Anfield, the creative midfielder has only played in his optimal role — as the left-sided number 8 in a 433 formation — once and he thrived on that occassion. With Fabinho anchoring and Henderson offering energy and athleticism on the right-hand side, Liverpool were superb in the 2-2 draw with Everton at Goodison Park, even if the scoreline doesn’t suggest so.
Thiago was assertive and his passing with ambitious and well selected. If it wasn’t for a dubious offside call, he would have played a huge part in what would have been Liverpool’s winner with a delicious, against the grain pass for Sadio Mane that the Senegalese crossed for Henderson to force into the net.
From that point, though, the Spaniard has played as the deepest midfielder and has largely been decent, if not spectacular. In terms of progressing the ball through the heavily wooded forest that is midfield, Thiago has performed well in the role, but when it comes to shielding the defence — a responsibility that is alien to him — he hasn’t been as impressive.
Without the physical attributes to stop opposition counter, the Reds have looked vulnerable through the middle of their team at times with the 29-year-old as the deepest midfielder, in a manner similar to Manchester City after acclimatising Rodri to fill Fenandinho considerable boots.
To get the best out of the former Barcelona player, Liverpool need him to play higher up the pitch and let him influence proceedings from that vantage point. With the team misfiring in front of goal, that kind of creative impetus could resusitate the failing attack.
Wheter it’s Henderson or Wijnaldum or who carry the defensive midfield can, one thing is for sure: Liverpool need to stop playing Thiago as the 6.