Thiago’s first touch is so good it’s like he’s playing a different sport to others
In September 2019, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville named Fabinho as the best holding midfielder in the Premier League, aiming a barb at those who ‘sit back and pass sideways’.
“I think Fabinho at the moment is the best,” Neville said. “Because what Fabinho does actually, he doesn’t sit back in games. These holding midfield players who just play horizontally, passing sideways, shuttling across, but Fabinho plays vertically as well.
“He goes forward with his passes, he moves forward and steps in and wins the ball back. I think the best holding midfield players aren’t just people who basically shuffle across and make it look simple, they also step into the game.
“It’s the ability of knowing where you are with your back to play. The great players know what’s over their shoulder, they receive it on the half-turn, they take the ball to the right side when there’s a player coming from the other side.”
As Liverpool prepare to confirm the signing of Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, using Neville’s judgement there’s a strong argument to say the Reds will now have the best and second best holding midfielders in the league.
Thiago is likely to take Gini Wijnaldum’s role in Klopp’s team rather than play as an out-and-out sitter, though he can certainly do that if required – Pep Guardiola once said he can “play in three or four positions”. But wherever he is positioned, there is certainly no danger of Neville accusing him of sitting back in games.
Thiago’s so good it’s like watching someone play a different sport to the majority of midfielders we watch in England, from the way he moves to the way he passes to the way he sees the game.
What we’re most looking forward to watching, however, is Thiago’s first touch.
The above touch is almost deliberately ostentatious, piss-takingly pleasing in a way not seen in the Premier League since Dimitar Berbatov took his silk boots to Monaco.
But what is most striking about Thiago is the way he is usually more subtle in the way he controls the ball in what a seems like a permanent change of direction. Rarely does the Spain international collect the ball and continuing moving in same direction he was already facing.
Instead, he always has one eye over his shoulder, not just to see where he may be put under pressure but to also see where he can find a pocket of space. In a split second, the opposition defender has gone from feeling like he has Thiago right where he wants him to being left clutching at thin air.
Judging by Neville’s comments about what he wants to see from a central midfielder, Thiago possesses the kind of ability that at some point in 2020-21 could provoke a repeat of Nev’s famous goalgasm following Fernando Torres’ goal against Barcelona.
And then, well…and then there’s stuff like this, which we’re not ashamed to admit made us groan a little bit too.
In Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal heyday, German football expert Uli Hesse told balls.ie: “There was a very good piece in Die Zeit that said modern coaches like Thomas Tuchel are from the Guardiola and Van Gaal School of Coaching. What these modern coaches value above all else is control, ‘We have to be in control at all times and we have to have the ball.’
“What Klopp likes is when things get out of control, because at that point it is all about emotion, about passion, and at that point it comes down to how much you want it. This is when Klopp’s teams are at their best.”
But to convert Liverpool from nearly men to serial winners, Klopp had to rein himself in and learn how to control both his emotions and the 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.
The signings of Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho went a long way to solving that problem, providing an anchor for his team, but the fine-tuning of his runaway champions now allows him the chance to add some flair to that midfield of brilliant grafters.
It is possible that Klopp had made the signings of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to provide those kind of thrills, only for injury to prevent both players from consistently producing anything more than flashes of form.
But in Thiago and that devilish first touch, he may finally have the midfielder that can provide him with the best of both worlds.