LONDON: If Liverpool’s first two journeys to the Champions League final under Jurgen Klopp were characterized by chaos, then the third — likely to be completed on Tuesday — ought to be defined by control.
And no one is bringing more control to this remarkable quadruple-chasing team than Thiago Alcantara.
“People were questioning if he suits our football?” Klopp said recently of Thiago, almost in disgust. “Thank God these people don’t make decisions.”
It’s Klopp who signs off the big decisions at Anfield, at least when it comes to signing players, and his record in that regard over the past two years has been particularly strong.
Diogo Jota hit the ground running at Liverpool, quickly breaking up the long-established front three. Luis Diaz, another winger, might have settled even quicker and has been a revelation since joining from Porto in January. Ibrahima Konate has been quietly impressive in his first season, locking in a center-back berth for the Champions League campaign.
Thiago has been the slow burner following his move from Bayern Munich in the offseason of 2020 but has clearly now caught fire.
His no-look passes often catch the eye — and often catch out mesmerized opponents — but it’s the Spaniard’s touch, composure and footballing brain that have really started to shine through in what’s shaping up to be a season for the ages by Liverpool.
It’s those qualities which Klopp will want from Thiago as Liverpool heads to Estadio de la Ceramica for the second leg of the Champions League semifinals against Villarreal and protecting a 2-0 lead.
Thiago was again the ringleader in the first leg, completing 99 of his 103 passes in a display of utter dominance by the English club. And it was Thiago who, when things were getting slightly stodgy in the first half as Villarreal’s players slowed the play down, got the home crowd fired up by whirring his arms toward the fans after seeing his long-range shot smash off the outside of the post.
Back in 2018-19, when Liverpool went all the way to the final in Europe’s top competition, Klopp’s teams stood out for the devastation they created going forward. The class of 2017-18 scored 40 goals on the run to the final before losing to Real Madrid; the title-winning 2018-19 team scored three goals at Bayern Munich in the last 16, six over two legs against Porto in the quarterfinals, and then pulled off a memorable 4-0 win over Barcelona in the second leg of the semifinals.
The presence of Thiago in midfield has brought more calm in this season’s run, a characteristic Klopp’s team previously lacked.
Many, though, thought he was the wrong player for Liverpool in a first year at the club that was marked by a serious leg injury sustained against Everton that sidelined him for most of the first half of last season and then injuries to teammates — especially at center back — that caused a redeployment of resources. With Fabinho dropping into defense, Thiago ended up replacing him in a deep-lying midfield role where he was foisted with defensive responsibilities and struggled with the pace of the game in his first taste of English soccer.
This season, playing in a more forward-oriented position in front of Fabinho, Thiago has dictated Liverpool’s attacks, backing up the lyrics of a song the club’s fans devised for him.
Chanting “Thiago, Thiago Alcantara” to the tune of the Gibson Brothers’ “Cuba,” Liverpool supporters sing: “You dance through the midfield like nobody does, the first time I saw you I knew it was love” and “He’ll roll you like a Cuban. His passes never miss.”
“He is a real football person and thinks a lot about football,” Klopp said. “He knew how we played, and he knew he would fit in and we knew it as well.”
With Thiago and Diaz now regulars in the team for Champions League matches, Liverpool has completed their transition under Klopp. Diaz, with his bag of tricks out on the left, gives the Reds a sense of unpredictability, while Thiago just keeps them ticking over with his metronomic passing and control.
With the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold established pillars in the team, Klopp appears to have every base covered. It’s why Liverpool is closing in on history.