Liverpool’s defeat at home to Everton in the Merseyside Derby made it a fourth straight loss at Anfield in the league for the first time since 1923, as well as being the first victory for the Toffees at the home of their rivals since 1999. While no one in a red shirt was at their best, one man seemed to yet again be the centre of criticism: Thiago Alcantara.
One quick look on social media following that costly defeat and it became pretty clear who both rivals fans and even a section of the Reds support were keen to blame. While the front three never really looked like scoring and young defender Ozan Kabak had a particularly shaky introduction to life against the blue side of Liverpool, it was Thiago who was once again used as the stick to beat the champions with.
Ever since his arrival from Bayern Munich in the summer, the midfield maestro has been perhaps wrongly seen as one of the major causes of Liverpool’s decline, with his displays to date not quite what many supporters and pundits had hoped for.
Injuries and illness essentially saw him miss the first half of the season, while his return from the treatment table has coincided with one of the club’s worst runs of form since Jurgen Klopp took over the club in late 2015.
At a time when Liverpool look vulnerable, the sight of the Spaniard keeping possession and making things tick hasn’t gone down too well with Reds supporters, many having expected more from a man who had been central to Bayern’s superb displays in their eventual Champions League triumph last season.
In truth, it would seem everyone is expecting the former Barcelona man to be something that he is not, a high energy, goalscoring midfielder full of gusto. That’s just simply not his game.
It almost appears that many hadn’t seen his performances over the last few years and were expecting him to be an assist merchant who can singlehandedly win games on his own. In Germany, as part of rampant and aggressive Bayern side, the 30-year-old was the midfield artist, dictating play with each delightful stroke of his brush.
While the likes of Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski ran riot in attack, Thiago was the man brilliantly and often quietly tying things together in the centre of the park.
He may not be quick nor overly combative, but his range of passing and knack of triggering attacks has made him one of Europe’s most impressive midfielders. That hasn’t changed overnight at Anfield.
It may just be that we are demanding from him what he is not inclined to provide. One look at his stats from last season would tell you that he is no goalscorer or provider of assists, with the 29-year-old having contributed just three goals and no assists in 24 Bundesliga appearances in the 2019/20 campaign.
That may seem a pretty poor return for a player of his quality, but his role in the side wasn’t necessarily to get in on the action, but more so to dictate the tempo and to get the team up the pitch with incisive, forward passes.
As his stats from last season showed, he still managed to create an average of one chance per 90 minutes, a record better than the likes of Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Fabinho.
He also had a pass success rate of 90.5%, a feat only matched by Wijnaldum among the crop of midfield talent in Klopp’s side last term. As his displays this season have already shown, he is not afraid of a clipped ball in behind or a switch of play and is not solely just knocking the ball around the backline as recent criticism would suggest.
It is apparent that a player of his skillset and playing style is often lauded when a team is playing well and is praised as the guy in control of the tempo, yet when things aren’t going to plan, the sight of a man who neither scores nor assists just keeping possession on the halfway line doesn’t go down particularly well.
Nor at times can you blame supporters for being frustrated, but there are other avenues of blame for them to channel their rage. Many have suggested that the Spain international slows the game down, yet as Jamie Carragher alluded to in the Telegraph, his former club actually complete more passes without Thiago in the side, while the number of forward passes is actually higher with him in the team.
Equally, the playmaker has been maligned as a defensive liability, but even if he is not an out-and-out holding midfielder, he still makes his fair share of tackles, having made 2.3 per game last season, better than Milner and Wijnaldum, although less than Henderson and Fabinho.
There is no denying he was at fault for Leicester City’s equaliser in the 3-1 defeat at the King Power Stadium last weekend, with his lazy trip allowing James Maddison to fire home a free-kick, yet it’s not as if the backline is coping particularly well at the moment, nor the goalkeeper.
The fact of the matter is that he is quite often being asked to play a role that perhaps does not suit him as the main defensive midfielder in the team, due to a lack of options. And that’s just it, while he may not quite be hitting the heights that were expected, there are some extenuating circumstances that are holding him back.
The loss of Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, as well as that of Joel Matip, has forced either/both of Fabinho and Henderson to drop in at centre-back, losing their usual high energy, high pressing displays from midfield.
Although 20-year-old Curtis Jones looks like a player of serious potential, he perhaps does not have that same impetus to press as his captain, while the uncertainty surrounding Wijnaldum’s future could be inhibiting his contribution.
Not that Thiago would necessarily be bombing up and down the pitch to press if he were alongside Fabinho and Henderson in midfield, but it would allow him to have a more free role while the other two do the dirty work. In truth, it’s not an excuse – as some would make out – to suggest that Klopp’s men have just been desperately unlucky with injuries this season.
Perhaps failing to replace Dejan Lovren at the start of the season was a mistake, but no one could have predicted that the champions would lose their three first-choice centre-backs for extended periods. Equally, the loss of Diogo Jota has been crucial, with the usual front three not quite clicking this year despite Mo Salah’s excellent goal record.
In that regard maybe the club are to blame for failing to have adequate cover, as Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri don’t appear of the quality to really challenge for a place in the starting XI.
As for Thiago, the real test will be at the start of next season when everyone is back fit and available, as only then can we really determine if he is a world-class hindrance to the team or someone who can take them to that next level.
That being said, with a previously derided midfield having helped carry the team to a Premier League title and the Champions League, it’s difficult to know what that next level is.