Thiago time: Liverpool's game-changer finally ready to take the Premier League by storm
The Spain midfielder is back fit after a knee injury and ready to hand Jurgen Klopp a huge boost as the title race starts to heat up
It was only 20 minutes. Just 20-odd passes, a few headers and a blocked shot.
And in the end, it was not even enough to turn an underwhelming draw into a priceless victory.
That has not stopped Liverpool fans getting excited though, and nor should it.
Thiago Alcantara is back, and he is ready to finally get stuck into the Premier League.
It has been a frustrating start to life in England for the Spain international. Having arrived at Anfield amid much fanfare back in September, he has so far been limited to just three appearances, totalling 155 minutes; one start, one half and, up at Newcastle on Wednesday, one immensely-promising cameo.
That is not his fault, of course. A positive coronavirus test disrupted his early weeks on Merseyside, and his season was then interrupted by a wild challenge from Everton’s Richarlison, which left him with a knee injury that would keep him out for more than two months.
Liverpool have, in fairness, done well in his absence. They have clawed themselves to the top of the Premier League and progressed smoothly in the Champions League.
“What the other boys have done is incredible, to be honest,” said Jurgen Klopp after the game at Newcastle. “But we signed Thiago because we thought he is a good player, so you can imagine we would like to have him in the team!”
Certainly, having the former Bayern Munich man available would provide a sizeable boost in a season which has been littered with setbacks. The perfect New Year’s present, you could call it.
Liverpool have been hit harder than most by injuries. Centre-backs Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk are out for the long term while another, Joel Matip, is still a couple of weeks away from fitness.
The impact of those absentees is clear, not only in defence but in the midfield too. Fabinho, arguably the finest No.6 in the league, has been forced to move back, while Jordan Henderson has also been needed on occasion.
And with others injured, Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Curtis Jones have had to play more minutes than is ideal, given the schedule.
The return of Thiago – plus others such as James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri – changes things. Not only does it afford Klopp some wiggle room – he can dip Jones, for example, in and out and keep the youngster fresh – but it adds one of the world’s best controlling midfield players into the mix.
And the difference that will make cannot be overstated.
The evidence was there, albeit briefly, at Newcastle. Thiago replaced Milner on 73 minutes and Liverpool’s quality immediately improved. The substitute finished the game having completed more passes than every single Newcastle player, bar Matty Longstaff, who played the full 90.
One of those passes, a sublime crossfield sweep out to Trent Alexander-Arnold, helped fashion a chance which Sadio Mane somehow could not force home.
Others were whipped round the corner, into the feet of forwards and midfield runners. Against teams set on defending – think West Brom, who unexpectedly took a point from Anfield over Christmas – the ability to break lines, to suddenly inject tempo and imagination, is vital. Few midfielders, few players, do that better than Thiago.
“He’s a super player,” Klopp said, though he was quick to voice a note of caution.
“From the 20 minutes he played, 12 were brilliant,” he added. “And then he felt the intensity, which is normal. He trained only twice around the team, so there is still some physical work to do, still some rhythm to get.”
For a player of such calibre, it should not take too long to find it.
Thiago is likely to start on the bench again at Southampton on Monday, and it will be interesting to see whether Klopp uses him in the FA Cup at Aston Villa on Friday. He will certainly want him flying for Liverpool’s following fixture, at home to Manchester United on January 17.
That already feels like it could be huge, a chance for the champions to reassert their status as title favourites, and pop the balloon of a rival in the process.
The threat from Manchester is real, with City looking ominous and United, inspired by Bruno Fernandes, making light of their early-season struggles with a series of ground-out victories under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Both will expect to be there or thereabouts come May.
Liverpool, though, remain the team to beat. They may have stumbled over the festive period – only time will tell how expensive those four dropped points will be – but no team knows how to win like this one.
Despite their issues, they have still only been beaten once in the league this season. And that came when Gomez and Van Dijk were available.
With Thiago back to probe and to dictate and to create, Klopp’s team should be backed to find their best form in 2021. He was signed as a game-changer, one of the few players who could immediately improve a title-winning side.
The Reds worked harder to get him than they did anyone. It was a world-class footballer joining a world-class team under a world-class manager. The perfect combination.
Now, after a delayed start, Liverpool will get to see what he can do. The perfect January signing, as Klopp joked recently. A most welcome boost in the most challenging of campaigns.
'Thiago Time' is here. The champions are about to get a whole lot stronger.
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