Success in football is almost impossible to define.
It’s a divisive topic, and everyone has their own definition of the word. For some it’s obvious – trophies are the only determining factor, if you aren’t one of the very few teams that lifts one of those shiny cups at the end of the season then it’s a failure. For others, it’s less clear than that. Take Arsenal’s 2022/23 campaign for example, it became a fierce debate in footballing circles. The young squad unexpectedly led the Premier League table for 284 days – a league record – yet they stumbled at the final hurdle to the Manchester City machine. To some it was still an excellent achievement, they exceeded expectations despite not winning the league – a success. To others it was a monumental failure, an opportunity that won’t come along again in a while blown.
Success at an individual player level is even harder to define. For some, again, it will be trophies – yet this seems unrealistic given the vast number of outside factors at play. For others it will lie within the cold hard numbers to define their value. Then there are those that will let emotion dictate what success is, how a player makes them feel when they watch them, the connection they feel when they watch them on a football pitch. There is no right or wrong answer here, it is subjective. The truth is that it’s likely a combination of all the above compared to the initial expectations of a player when they arrive in the first team that forms the overarching opinion of player success.
The arrival of Thiago Alcántara from Bayern Munich in 2020 brought a vast amount of expectation. The Italian-born Spain international was considered one of the best midfielders in the world, playing a starring role as the German club won the treble. Then sporting director Michael Edwards managed to secure Thiago’s services for just £20m (and a potential £5m more in add-ons) due to him having one year left on his deal at the Allianz, and his clear desire to try pastures new after winning it all for Die Roten. Three years on – and chatter of a potential exit this summer – has sparked some debate on how successful his Anfield has been. I’ve taken a deeper look (and put bias aside – as I write this in a room with a signed jersey of his hanging on the wall).
The former Barcelona man joined up with Jürgen Klopp’s side one game into the season after what felt like a long transfer saga. Two days later he was making his debut away at Stamford Bridge. That game captured the imagination of nearly every Liverpool fan. Jordan Henderson limped off at half-time with an injury, and in the 45 minutes following that, Thiago recorded the most passes completed by a Premier League player who played a maximum of 45 minutes (since Opta started gathering the statistic in 2003, there is also the asterisk that Chelsea went down to ten men before half-time).
75 - Half-time substitute Thiago completed more passes (75) than any Chelsea player managed in the entire match. Since full passing data is available for the Premier League (2003-04), his 75 successful passes are the most by a player who played a maximum of 45 minutes. Control. pic.twitter.com/UvHfrw1ggN
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 20, 2020
After a debut that promised so much, he got COVID-19, missing four games. Next up was a trip away to Goodison for Liverpool’s new number six. That game ended 2-2 and is more famous for another injury (Virgil van Dijk’s ACL), but as just alluded to, had a huge negative impact on Thiago’s season. The fixture that has produced the most red cards in league history produced another produced another, a horror tackle from Richarlison (after which Thiago played on and finished the game) resulted in red, and a devastating knee injury for the Spaniard. It left him on the sidelines for 17 games.
Despite that serious injury, 2020/21 was Thiago’s most successful in terms of minutes played. From January onwards he was a constant in the team. He was Liverpool’s most and the league’s second most (behind Granit Xhaka) progressive passer (9.89 per ninety), the highest ranked player in the league for passes into the final third (9.95 per ninety) and put up the highest number for defensive actions (tackles + interceptions) at Liverpool (4.42 per ninety).
Despite putting up such incredible numbers, Thiago’s performances are rarely remembered. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the season is overshadowed by negative events both on and off the pitch. It was a season of empty stands (due to COVID) and a season in which Liverpool lost all central defenders to injury, limping through most of the season with Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams in defence.
The second reason is that there seemed to be a misunderstanding of who Thiago was as a footballer by a lot of people – particularly those in the media. There seemed to be an expectation that he was a midfielder in the mould of Kevin De Bruyne, someone that would directly contribute to a lot of goals. Yet this has never been his game. The one goal and no assists in his first season led to a lot of discourse. Yet this has never been his game, his most direct goal involvements in a season is 11 (six goals and five assists) in 2016/17. The beauty in Thiago’s game is how he moves the ball forward, and he’s much better at the less glamorous stuff than people give him credit for – as shown by his tackles and interception numbers.
The 2021/22 season was Thiago’s best (when he was on the pitch) in a Liverpool shirt so far and – despite injuries – he was a key part of a side that nearly accomplished everything asked of them, falling just short of a quadruple. Statistically, Thiago’s numbers were again through the roof. Here’s how he ranked compared to other midfielders in the 2021/22 Premier League season:
While the data doesn’t always tell the full story, this gives you a pretty good idea of how Thiago was performing when he was on the pitch. The things he was doing with the ball at his feet was gripping, it genuinely – at times – had you on the edge of your seat. He produced performances so good that Sky Sports were posting YouTube compilations of his every touch.
His ability to notice passes nobody else would, his ability to manipulate the ball to go exactly where he needed it to be was almost a refreshing reminder of how joyful football can be. Perhaps what was most mesmerising was the now-named “Thiago Turn” — the ability to take a deft touch before shifting his body weight in a very distinct way that became his own signature move.
Another example of Thiago’s almost machine-like levels of technical ability came in November 2021, when he scored one of the best goals of the Klopp era, managing to defy the laws of physics against Porto.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 24, 2022
Injuries take their toll
However, 2021/22 wasn’t without its low moments. Thiago was named in the starting line-up for the Carabao Cup win against Chelsea, yet his day began in tears, injuring himself in the warmup and unable to take part on the pitch as his teammates won on penalties.
He did get his redemption, playing and scoring against the same opposition in the same stadium as he won the FA Cup. But he managed less than half the minutes available to him (44.9% to be exact) as calf, hip, and thigh (not to mention another bout of COVID) caught up with him. While he did play 77 minutes in the Champions League final defeat, if he’d had managed to play more league minutes, we may be here discussing a player who had won a treble for Liverpool, rather than just the cups.
Which leads us into last season. Liverpool dropped off hugely after the disappointment of defeat in Paris. The midfield looked old. If Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were once champion racehorses struggling to keep up with the younger stallions, Thiago struggled to get out of the blocks at all. He managed the least number of minutes yet at Anfield. Two hip injuries essentially kept him out from late February until the end of the season – barring a two-week period of fitness in April.
The truth is that Liverpool were a better side with Thiago on the pitch than without it, registering 15 wins in games he appeared in. The issue was that he wasn’t on the pitch enough. Injuries have always been part of Thiago’s story, but last season it became too much for fans. Not all of this is the midfielder’s fault. He had no influence on the poor performances of his colleagues. He cannot influence the form of the team if he’s not on the pitch. His injuries aren’t his fault either, players do not choose to have a bad hip – they want to be on the pitch more than anyone. Last season, though, saw many fans give up on Thiago. He was branded a “Luxury Player”, “Can’t be relied on”, “Sick Note” (the latter a personal favourite of my dad’s).
Which leads us to the now. David Ornstein has reported that the Spaniard is set to stay next season. Others have reported interest from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even a return to boyhood club Barcelona. So, if he does go this summer, has he been a success at Liverpool?
Was it worth it?
Some will say no. Availability is so important in football, and Thiago – for the most part – is not on the football pitch while his teammates are. Yes, he’s had flashes of brilliance, but he’s never consistently put it together at Anfield. This was a serial winner, someone who had won a trophy every single year of his career and will leave Liverpool with just a Carabao and FA Cup. He was brought to push the team to new heights but never did so.
Some will say yes. At £20m, Thiago wasn’t an expensive deal — though he is one of the club's highest earners. The club knew he had a sketchy injury history. When he has been on the pitch, he’s been excellent. The data speaks for itself. Beyond that he has been one of the most talented players we’ve seen in Liverpool’s midfield. What he can do with the ball makes watching football fun, it inspires young kids to try those things out in the street or back garden – and at the end of the day, that’s what football is about.
Thiago is an entertainer, and for 90 minutes he draws you in, and makes you forget everything else going on in the world. Yes, he hasn’t won what we’d liked, but there were such extenuating circumstances so can we really blame him?
I fall somewhere down the middle of these two, leaning towards the latter. I’m glad that I’ve been able to watch Thiago Alcántara play for my football club, but when his time at Anfield comes to an end, it’ll end with me thinking it could have been so much more than it was.