Paul Merson has claimed that Thiago Alcantara will be the key player for Jurgen Klopp if Liverpool are to retain their Premier League title.
Thiago, 29, is on the verge of making his full Anfield debut on Sunday as the Reds welcome Manchester United in a gargantuan top-of-the-table encounter.
The Spaniard has been limited to just 285 minutes of action since joining Liverpool from Bayern Munich last summer in a £20 million [BBC] deal.
Since thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park on December 19, the Reds have gone three matches without a win – surrendering points to West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton.
As a result, Liverpool now trail Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and United in the league table by three points. The Reds, then, cannot afford to surrender any further ground come Sunday.
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Merson on Thiago
Liverpool will be desperate to bounce back against their bitter rivals this weekend, and Merson feels Thiago’s involvment could be the difference for Klopp between now and the end of the season.
Speaking with Sky Sports, the former Arsenal man said: “I feel teams are approaching Liverpool now, not giving them any space, and saying: ‘You’ll have to break us down.’
“Liverpool are struggling without that guile in midfield. They’ll need Thiago to play every week. He’s the one who sees that pass.
“I think Jurgen Klopp knows this now, because he’s even bringing Xherdan Shaqiri in, someone who you’d have previously thought might not play another minute for Liverpool. But he can put the ball through the eye of a needle.
“Without that, it takes the Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino X-factor out of the game.
“Liverpool are still the best in the world without the ball, but when there’s no space there, it gets taken away.
“Thiago must play every week. He can see that pass, and we’ve seen evidence of that in a couple of games. It might not always come off, but he sees it.
“What team in the world aren’t going to miss Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in midfield? It’s hard when you’re taking those players out of the midfield.
“Liverpool’s midfield have always made everything happen – they are the unsung heroes. Without them, I don’t think anything happens at Liverpool.
“They protect the back four, they let the full-backs bomb on, and they let the front three do what they want.”
What RTK has to say
Merson makes a number of key points. For one, Thiago’s involvment provides some much needed guile and exuberance in midfield, particular with the absence of make-shift defender Fabinho.
Another key factor for Liverpool’s lack of creativity in midfield has inevitably stemmed from key personnel missing at the back, too.
The Reds can’t build from the back as effectively without their two first-choice ball-playing centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. Joel Matip, who is also currently injured, is another big miss.
Henderson and Fabinho have proven they can adapt to Liverpool’s back-line in recent weeks. However, their absence is too great a miss in midfield and Liverpool are therefore denied a presence going forward.
Klopp’s best midfield triumvirate is arguably Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson. Unfortunately, they have started together just once all season – the 2-2 draw at Goodison Park.
It’s unlikely given Fabinho’s transformation in defence, that we will see such a midfield set-up until next season.
For now, however, let’s hope that Thiago, Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum can provide the goods against United this Sunday.