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After a slow start, Thiago is beginning to make Liverpool tick at just the right time


“Adaptation. Connection. Purpose.”

In Brazil, Valeria Alcantara has shared several vignettes on the early sketches of a football intellect.

The volleyball star that represented her country 25 times would watch in wonderment as her son, only four, would speed into the house collecting shoes to line them up as cones.

Having just returned from watching his father, World-Cup winning Mazinho, train with Valencia, the boy would mirror the drills and dribble through the maze of footwear.

It would amaze Valeria what little Thiago would pick up as he grew, not only from a technical perspective but a professional one: paying attention to what his dad would eat or drink, listening to talks from managers, demanding critique on his sessions or performances.

He could adapt too, adopting cultures and differences, footballing or otherwise, when he shifted between Spain and Brazil, owing to Mazinho’s career.

Thiago, per his mother, didn’t just want to play football: “He thinks it too.” At 13, he was already pinned down as special, with Ureca club president Juan Diaz telling Faro de Vigo he was born for the sport and “towered above everyone, from a technical, physical and maturity standpoint.”

What was true then still resonates now. How it is possible to stand out – to still seem otherworldly – in a Liverpool team that features phenoms at both ends of the pitch like Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah?

To watch Thiago is to see someone operate on a different sphere to others, playing the game in the future and with purpose. He has become absolutely core to how Liverpool want to control matches and it is quite visible that there are contrasting versions of the team with and without him on the pitch.

‘You read the player, and read the play’: Thiago developed an understanding of the game from a young age

(Getty Images)

It is insane that a year ago the midfielder was widely being accused of not fitting in at Anfield and “slowing the tempo.” The accusation, erroneous in all respects, suggested Thiago was trying to force Liverpool into a more possession-based approach instead of adjusting to Jurgen Klopp’s requirements.

The reality is there has been no player more effective in implementing the manager’s evolution of the team more than the 30-year-old. And when asked what characteristics most defined Thiago’s football, a member of the backroom team offered: “Adaptation. Connection. Purpose.”

There can be no surprise that someone born in Italy to a Brazilian World Cup winner, who is a Spain international that has represented Barcelona and was immense for Bayern Munich, is adept at adjusting.

Thiago has spent his entire football life fusing opposing styles, influences and expectations, succeeding regardless of the requirements and the increased speed of the game. “Those of us who are not so fast with our legs have to be faster in our heads,” he previously explained.

At Liverpool, Thiago has been tasked with offering creativity and control centrally, reducing the reliance of that coming from the full-backs, and providing variety. This is a whole new function for a solid midfield that was successful in delivering top silverware, but had to change to provide greater avenues of progressive dominance. Thiago has successfully led the revolution.

Liverpool are a different team without Thiago and the his record alongside Fabinho in midfield is impressive

(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

There are the eye-widening moments like the 50-yard ‘no look’ pass to Kostas Tsimikas in the build-up to the third goal against Norwich and that goal over Porto, where he ran onto the ball, lent back ever so slightly as he used the cushioning of his right foot to cut straight through it and somehow managed to make it glide just above the grass before nestling into the bottom corner.

But the magic is also in how he effortlessly dictates the tempo and direction, while also looking to play forward at every chance.

Thiago receives the ball by uniquely rolling his foot over it, stopping it dead and causing his marker to slow down before rapidly switching it to one side and away from the opponent. This is a trademark, but he is also well versed to using his first touch to take the ball out of danger.

Thiago’s ability to shift his body weight to create a yard of space or leave an opposition player in his shadow is a thing of beauty and also a product of being sharper in his mind. The momentum of an approaching opponent is ultimately used against them.

The connection with his team-mates is obvious from that pass to Tsimikas but also noticeable with every decision he makes on the ball, the moments that don’t make a highlights clip.

Xabi Alonso, who played with Thiago at Bayern, told his former club Liverpool that they can expect a player who “connects with team-mates very easily and makes the game easier for them. He thinks for you.”

Thiago won the Champions League on his final appearance for Bayern Munich before joining Liverpool

(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

In an interview with The Independent, Thiago spoke about his process. “You have to understand who you’re giving the ball to, if he’s left-footed or right-footed, and secondly to know the move,” he said.

“If it’s a move where the defence is very high, and you’re going to open play, it has to be faster and inside the centre-half. It’s two things, you read the player, and read the play.

“I think for every team to understand that intensity of pass is essential. Apart from that, you don’t just give a pass for the sake of it. You give a pass specific to the game, and the play.

“You don’t think of the name. You think of the player he is for who he is. So, you interpret it like a chess piece you have in front of you, that you know what way it can move.”

Adaptation. Connection. Purpose.

The only issue Liverpool have with Thiago is fitness-related. He cannot play every minute and will not start the majority of games in a season. But perhaps the inverse would be too unkind on all the opponents that attempt close him down.

Whenever he is on the pitch, Thiago is a marvel – but more than that, he is Liverpool’s controller and a key to triumph.

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