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Thiago Alcantara: One of the great, lost Liverpool careers?

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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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, April 19, 2022: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Thiago Alcântara celebrate beating Manchester United 4-0 during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

And yet that proved the zenith of his time at Anfield.

News of another injury setback – despite Jurgen Klopp‘s insistence he will play again this season – seems to suggest that, in all probability, we have seen the last of Thiago starting in red.

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.

 

High hopes

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 20, 2020: Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara, makes his debut as a substitute, during the FA Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by Propaganda)

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.

Such a move led many to believe Thiago was somewhat of a luxury signing – and Klopp’s ‘reward’ for winning the Premier League.

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 17, 2020: Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara (L) and manager Jürgen Klopp walk back to the dressing room at full time after an injury time winning goal was disallowed following a VAR review during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 237th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

How do you stay ahead of Man City? By becoming more Man City. Or so they thought.

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.

 

Long absences

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 18, 2021: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara limps off with an injury during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 17, 2020: Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara is treated for an injury by physio Chris Morgan during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 237th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

Thiago and Trent Alexander-Arnold were crucial to Liverpool’s late surge to third place and Champions League qualification.

 

A class act

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 14, 2022: Liverpool's Thiago Alcântara celebrates after the FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. The game ended in a goal-less draw, Liverpool won 6-5 on penalties. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

And yet more setbacks would follow. Thiago would be forced to sit out the League Cup final having picked up an injury in the warmup.

The sight of Alisson consoling his team-mate on the bench may, tragically, become the defining image of his time at Anfield.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 27: Diogo Jota, Thiago Alcantara and Adrian of Liverpool make their way out to train prior to the Liverpool FC Training Session at Stade de France on May 27, 2022 in Paris, France. Liverpool will face Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final on May 28, 2022. (Photo by UEFA)

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.

 

Regrets

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, July 30, 2022: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (R) and Thiago Alcântara after the FA Community Shield friendly match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at the King Power Stadium. Liverpool won 3-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 17, 2023: Liverpool's injured Thiago Alcântara before the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Anfield. The game ended in a goal-less draw. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.