Finally, after a summer of claims and counter-claims, Jurgen Klopp will land his man.
Liverpool have agreed a deal to sign Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, the much-admired Spain international, following his magnificent 2019-20 season, in which he shone as the German giants claimed Champions League glory.
The Reds have agreed terms with Bayern on a £26million deal, parting with just £20million up front and a further £6million in add-ons.
Thiago had previously made clear in discussions with Bayern bosses that, after seven years in Bavaria – during which he won the Bundesliga title seven times – he was keen on a new challenge.
Klopp, having learned of Thiago’s desire to test himself elsewhere, has been pushing throughout the summer to land a player he has long coveted, but whom has previously been unattainable.
The German has had to push Liverpool’s board to go against the grain where their transfer dealings are concerned, by bringing in the former Barcelona star, son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho.
But among deep-lying midfielders in world football, the 29-year-old has few peers and while he will instantly be set among the highest earners at Anfield, his arrival is unquestionably a coup.
As Gary Neville put it on Sky Sports earlier this month: “He is world class and would give them [Liverpool] a world-class presence in an area of the field where they don’t have a world-class presence.”
The question for Klopp now is how does he fit Thiago into his side, particularly given the midfield options he has at his disposal.
In the past two seasons, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have split duties as the side’s No.6 in front of the defence, while the Liverpool captain has also played slightly further forwards, in the box-to-box role he prefers.
Then there is Gini Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, plus young star Curtis Jones, Harry Wilson and Marko Grujic, back from loan spells at Bournemouth and Hertha Berlin respectively.
As such Klopp is facing a balancing act, particularly if there are no outgoings between now and the end of the transfer window.
Wijnaldum continues to be linked with Barcelona and has less than a year left on his deal, while no-one has so far met the £20million price tags of either Wilson or Grujic.
Klopp is also keen to give Jones more minutes this term, and has shown little desire to sanction any kind of loan move for the Scouse teenager.
It was also notable how Jones was called from the bench in the opening day 4-3 win over Leeds, while the calming head of veteran James Milner remained on the bench.
Liverpool have taken 196 points across their last two Premier League campaigns.
During that time, Klopp has largely been wedded to a 4-3-3 system with a single pivot in midfield.
It has been his go-to system, the one he has always fallen back on in big games, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane either side of Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson firing down either flank and a midfield trio largely supporting and backing up play, keeping balance.
Thiago is not your archetypal midfield anchorman, but in that 4-3-3 shape the man who wears No.10 for Spain is perhaps most suited to playing as the sole holder.
In the Bundesliga last season, no player progressed the ball smarter, nor more efficiently, than Thiago; the job Jorginho does at Chelsea, he does that, only better. Much better.
So with his preference being to orchestrate from deep with more movement ahead of him and seeing the bigger picture, rather than operating 20 yards further forwards, and with Liverpool likely to dominate possession more than ever this term, perhaps that is where he will be best served.
He doesn’t shirk the defensive side of the game either, his 12.91 possession recoveries per 90 minutes ranking second among midfielders in Germany in 2019-20; his 7.2 counterpressing recoveries per 90 minutes similarly ranked second, both times behind Eintracht Frankfurt’s Lucas Torro.
When initially signed by Bayern Munich in 2013, it was the anchor role for which he was earmarked by Pep Guardiola.
However, his debut campaign at the Allianz Arena ended with a serious knee injury in March 2014, keeping him out of action for 13 months. When he returned, Xabi Alonso had signed from Real Madrid and with the ex-Liverpool man in the holding role, Thiago played slightly further forwards as one of Guardiola’s No.8s.
That role, that of Wijnaldum and Keita, just to the left, dovetailing with Sadio Mane and the overlapping Robertson, where Klopp may well prefer to see him, particular in the ‘big games’, or those when opponents may carry a greater counter-attacking threat.
He wouldn’t offer the same thrust into opposing penalty areas as the aforementioned duo.
However, it would offer greater security and given Thiago’s penchant for dropping into left-sided areas and opening up the field with his right foot from there, it both plays to his strengths and offers greater license to Mane to drop into the half spaces while giving Robertson even more scope to bomb forwards – not that he’s slow in doing so anyway.
Additionally, an adept dribbler with a neat hip swivel that helps him get away from opponents and open up opposing defences in the final third, Thiago is more dangerous coming from an inside left spot than the opposite side.
None of which is surprising given how he idolised Andres Iniesta and Xavi while growing up at La Masia.
“You watch Xavi and the things that he does. The passes that Xabi Alonso makes. Iniesta? Look at how he gets the ball and how it never leaves his foot when he is running with it.
“This is what they do. I have tried to take something from everyone.”
Last term, no-one in the Bundesliga could match Thiago’s numbers in terms of passing: 82.3 per 90 minutes with 91.6 percent accuracy, 13.58 progressive passes per 90, according to Wyscout.. Second on all those metrics was Joshua Kimmich, with 74.95 passes per90, at 90.3 percent, with 12.2 PPp90 – Kimmich will now be tasked with replacing Thiago full time in the Bayern midfield.
Klopp during his time as Borussia Dortmund boss utilised a 4-2-3-1 formation as weapon of choice; it was also the system he initially used at Anfield.
There have been times when he has returned to it in the past few seasons, often to utilise Mohamed Salah as a central striker. Using it on a more regular basis in 2020-21 will allow Thiago to operate in the position he occupied in recent years at Bayern, as part of a double pivot and it was used by the Reds in pre-season.
Thiago can play as either the more forward-thinking of the pair if teamed with either Fabinho or Jordan Henderson, or be the more defensively-minded of the twosome, if alongside either Keita or Wijnaldum for example.
The arrival of Thiago means that it is now highly unlikely Liverpool will replace Dejan Lovren within their ranks.
The Croatian’s exit has left Joel Matip as the only senior recognised backup to first-choice pair Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk at centre-half. Fourth choice in that regard now is Fabinho, with Nat Phillips, Sepp van den Berg and Ki-Jana Hoever further down the order.
One thing which Klopp has largely resisted during his tenure has been to go with three at the back. He memorably did so during a defensive injury crisis at Brighton a few years back, utilising Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can at the heart of a back three, and saw his side run out 5-1 winners.
But it is something which, potentially, he could turn towards again.
In effect it wouldn’t vary too greatly from 4-3-3 in terms of actual on-field positions – particularly given Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s aggressive forays down either flank – if slotting Fabinho in between Van Dijk and Gomez, but could allow for both Mane and Salah to operate as strikers, with Firmino or either Takumi Minamino in more of a No.10 role.
It is of course, a long shot.
“I can only congratulate Liverpool as they got a great player and especially a great person,” declared Hansi Flick, the Bayern boss on Thursday.
“Thiago gave the team a lot of options and made us unpredictable, he solved things in ways you don’t expect. Now we’re losing yet another great player.”
Liverpool are keen to repeat last season’s success – and you don’t want to miss a thing, surely?
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Liverpool got their title defence off to a shaky start as they edged out a seven-goal thriller against Leeds.
In terms of transfers. The Reds have agreed a deal for Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, but Georginio Wijnaldum continues to be linked with Barcelona. There’s a lot to keep track of.
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For Klopp, he is gaining a problem solver, someone who passes with ingenuity and who is capable of doing the unexpected.
And it’s not just that he is gaining any old player with those characteristics. He is adding arguably the best metronomic midfielder in Europe at present to his already record-breaking side.
As Flick says, Thiago gives a lot of options.
The job now for Klopp, having admired from afar for so long, is to figure out how to fit him best, to take his side to their next level.
Will Thiago shine at Anfield? Have your say below.
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