With news that Thiago is set for another spell on the sidelines, Aaron Cutler looks back on an injury-blighted Liverpool career.
We’ll always have Man United at home.
On that April evening in 2022, Thiago Alcantara put on a footballing clinic, nonchalantly dictating play and running rings around his opponents with an arrogance born from supreme confidence and rare ability.
It was an exhibition, perhaps the best individual performance by a Liverpool midfielder since Steven Gerrard hung up his boots.
As the Spaniard exited his arena to a standing ovation, those in attendance savoured the moment. It was a privilege to have been there.
And yet that proved the zenith of his time at Anfield.
It would be a cruel yet sadly fitting end to his time at the club. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine it concluding any other way.
The man Klopp once called one of the “best midfielders in the Bundesliga by a distance” arrived to much fanfare.
It’s easy to forget Liverpool don’t make a habit of signing readymade stars. Indeed, throughout the history of the club, they’ve tended to propel players to that level.
Understandably then, supporters were overjoyed to see someone of that status strutting into Anfield and asking “how are we?” in a much-clipped video diary.
It’s also seldom that Liverpool sign players aged 29 or over, particularly under the current ownership.
While that might be true, the theory that the champions wanted to evolve their style of play surely carries more weight.
In luring a deep-lying playmaker who had built a reputation for flair and finesse, it’s fair to assume Klopp and Pepijn Lijnders were keen to add another dimension to Liverpool’s game.
Our title tilts had been built on the running power of an exceptional but workmanlike midfield. The smallest margins matter for teams amassing 90-plus points, and Thiago‘s eye for a pass was perhaps seen as the key to unlocking miserly defences, thus turning costly draws into wins.
He was, for all intents and purposes, a Guardiola player lining up in a Klopp midfield.
City had a seeming conveyor belt of those kinds of technicians. Now Liverpool finally had their own and would not be stopped.
While nobody could question the logic, the brutal truth is the signing hasn’t worked.
There is an obvious reason for that: fitness. Or a lack thereof.
If you were to level one criticism at the club it would be their decision to overlook Thiago‘s chequered injury history.
In the three seasons prior to him joining the club, the Spaniard had been sidelined on 13 different occasions and missed 39 games – roughly 25 percent of fixtures.
To believe a player with that fitness record could adapt to the rigours and intensity of the Premier League, at that age, was wishful thinking. And it’s a blind optimism that has cost the club in different ways.
Granted, bad luck has also played a part.
Thiago was struck down with Covid in his first month on Merseyside, only to see his return to the side cut short by an X-rated challenge in an ill-tempered derby game.
Neither of those things could be foreseen, although Richarlison’s recklessness is always a cause for concern.
The subsequent calf injury kept him out of action for two months and a hip injury around Christmas another two after that.
Many forget he returned to the side at the back end of that debut season and found his feet.
A class act
While the 2021/22 season would still be punctuated by injuries (three in total plus another bout of Covid) we saw enough of Thiago to justify the hype.
His return to the side in the autumn coincided with Liverpool putting their foot down, winning five on the spin and scoring 16 goals without reply
Two of those goals were his own, including the breathtaking half-volley against Porto in front of the Kop. To this day debate rages as to whether the ball touched the ground.
Only a handful of players on the planet have that technique.
The sight of Alisson consoling his team-mate on the bench may, tragically, become the defining image of his time at Anfield.
He was also a major doubt for the Champions League final, resorting to an injection which meant he couldn’t feel his toes during the game.
In hindsight, that was a bad call.
That second season had highs and lows but should have left Liverpool in no doubt that Thiago could not be relied upon. He was a brilliant, marvellous bonus, but a contingency was certainly needed.
Which is why the decision to bank on his fitness and not sign midfield reinforcements that summer still rankles.
Thiago limped off on the opening day of a season which quickly unravelled. And that, in many ways, appears to mark the beginning of the end.
Thiago‘s looks set to become one of the great, lost Liverpool careers. It has been a joy to behold his talent but an eternal frustration we’ve seen so little of it.
Klopp often reassures injured players that the club will wait for them “like a good wife waits when the husband is in jail.”
Through no fault of his own, Thiago has become a repeat offender.
The irony is his signing probably brought about the end of Gini Wijnaldum‘s Liverpool career. The Dutchman was every bit the marathon man, missing just 15 games in five years at the club.
Thiago, by contrast, has now missed 103 and counting in three-and-a-half seasons.
Thiago once joked that Klopp taught him how to run. Perhaps we’ve run him into the ground.
Both brilliant players in their own right, Wijnaldum proved more robust and more reliable.
We perhaps lost sight of the fact that those were – or are – the defining traits of a Klopp midfield…one that got the better of City in their own way.
Thiago‘s Liverpool story may yet have one final chapter to write, but don’t count on it. We’ve never been able to.