Thiago Alcântara helps to uncover the Liverpool logic in the transfer pursuit of Jude Bellingham, and indeed numerous other recent reported FSG targets.
Having enjoyed the benefits of a streamlined and efficient recruitment process for many years, from the outside it feels like Liverpool are entering a period of sustained turbulence. Julian Ward and Ian Graham (the club’s Sporting Director and Director of Research respectively) are set to move on at the end of this season. They will no doubt be replaced by FSG, but how the structure will then operate is obviously not yet clear.
Will it be more important for a player to look good in the underlying numbers, or on the field, particularly when playing against the Reds? There’s absolutely no indication that the club’s data-driven mentality, a key pillar of the FSG era, will be changing. Ideally, they’ll find signings who tick both boxes, like Darwin Núñez.
In any case, statistics should be used as a filtering tool to pinpoint a selection of players to scout and assess more thoroughly from there. With January almost here, it will be fascinating to see if Liverpool address their midfield issues in the transfer market. If they want a like-for-like deputy or long-term replacement for one of their key men in the engine room, there are a couple of metrics it appears FSG should be considering very closely.
The tactics deployed by a manager will determine how different sections of their team play. The Reds became champions of everywhere between 2019 and 2020 by having a midfield three who offered relatively little in terms of goals or assists. It didn’t matter as they carried enough of a threat via their ‘front five’ of forwards and full-backs. Where Pep Guardiola would love a team comprised entirely of technical midfielders, Jürgen Klopp prioritised solidity and it worked.
But teams must evolve, and in came Thiago Alcântara to add a level of incisive passing previously unseen from the middle of Klopp’s Reds side. As he often suffers injuries, will be 32 by the time the season concludes (though he’s 31 until then) and has a contract which runs to the summer of 2024, next season could feasibly be his last with the club. While it feels his on-ball abilities will be the hardest aspect of his play to replace, his defensive stats are not shabby either.
Thiago has averaged 4.4 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes this season, and that while playing for the team with the fourth-highest average possession average in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain (per FBref). If the Reds only attempted 50 per cent of the total passes in their games rather than the 62.1 per cent they have in reality (a process known as possession adjustment), the former Bayern man’s defensive figures would equate to 6.8 per 90 minutes.
That’s all ifs and buts, though: let’s focus on his actual figure for tackles and interceptions. When you see the midfielders from the big five leagues with similar numbers both for that stat and progressive passing — for which Thiago is in the top one per cent of his positional peers — you will connect a lot of dots back to Liverpool.
The name which immediately draws the eye is Jude Bellingham, somewhat inevitably. Since you started reading this article, a dozen more linking the Reds with the England international will have appeared online somewhere. There’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.
But look at the highlighted section of the graph and who else do you see in the same ballpark as Bellingham and Thiago? Aurélien Tchouaméni, whom the Reds tried to sign last summer? Check. Brighton’s Moisés Caicedo, a long-term link to the Reds? Yeah, he’s there, as are Tyler Adams, Fabián Ruiz and Marcel Sabitzer, a further trio of reported Liverpool transfer targets.
If you factor in the multiple statistics used by FBref for their scouting reports, then Lyon’s Maxence Caqueret — who played 90 minutes against the Reds in a friendly last week — is the player most statistically similar to Thiago. The Liverpool man is in the top 10 per cent of big league midfielders for nine of the young Frenchman’s 17 best metrics.
Yet as well matched as they are, a simple plot of progressive passes against tackles and interceptions brings them close together too — along with Bellingham et al. Whatever method Liverpool employ to select their transfers both now and in the future, using a couple of key numbers appears to throw out all the options they realistically need.