There was still a game to be won, and a tie with Norwich to tee up, but Sunday’s FA Cup clash with Cardiff was all about the “nice little stories” for Jurgen Klopp.
Harvey Elliott‘s return to the side, after a long four months, could not have played out better; a goal in front of the Kop, his first for the club, in a 33-minute cameo that saw him show no signs of rustiness.
He entered the fray alongside a new face, too, with Luis Diaz taking just 10 minutes to record a debut assist as he hounded Perry Ng on the touchline and cut it back for Taki Minamino.
Minamino’s goal, coming days after his arrival from international duty with Japan, was another boost for Klopp after a climax to the transfer window that seemed likely to spell the end of his time working with the No. 18.
After seven-and-a-half weeks, a positive COVID-19 test, a troubling hip injury and a chest infection, the Spanish maestro was back on the pitch at Anfield.
It was, in many ways, a microcosm of his influence at Liverpool.
His game is about control, dictating play and keeping momentum; though he is far from just a water-carrier, Thiago is the player who makes his side tick.
A graphic from The Athletic’s John Muller has highlighted the value of control among the Premier League‘s elite clubs, with only Man City and Chelsea dominating the midfield as masterfully as Liverpool:
— John Muller (@johnspacemuller) February 8, 2022
It has been telling, then, that in those seven-and-a-half weeks since he tested positive for Covid and then suffered a niggling hip problem, the Reds have often struggled to maintain that control in the middle of the park.
This is a problem that was telegraphed upon Gini Wijnaldum‘s exit to Paris Saint-Germain – a left-sided hole opening up in Klopp’s squad that served such a vital function.
Fortunately, Thiago is the man to fill that gap, as he proved in his 15 appearances prior to that lengthy layoff.
According to Flashscore, in each of the nine games the 30-year-old has started so far this season, Liverpool have enjoyed the majority of possession; in seven of those nine, they have recorded at least 60 percent.
They have averaged 20.1 attempts on goal per game to the opposition’s 6.9 and averaged 2.8 goals per game to their opponents’ 0.2.
When Thiago has started this season, Liverpool have won every game. Twenty-five goals scored, two conceded, seven clean sheets.
In the four Premier League games he missed between mid-February and now, the Reds scored eight, conceded four and kept one clean sheet; two wins, one draw and a loss.
There are, of course, many variables to this, but Thiago is a player whose impact is perhaps less tangible than others – translating that into hard statistics serves as a measure of his control.
When fully fit – which could come over a buildup of minutes throughout Liverpool’s busy February and March that will include a run of 10 games in just 33 days – the No. 6 will almost certainly be a first-choice starter again for Klopp.
That control could allow the manager to unleash Elliott back in his right-sided role. It could give Diaz license to express himself as he adjusts to a new system.
It could allow Liverpool to propel themselves further back into the title race.
There should be no understating Thiago‘s mastery, as he is a unique player within Klopp’s squad – the failure to replicate that dominance during his time out is evidence of this.
Perhaps, though, that his comeback was a footnote among those “nice little stories” in the FA Cup suits the Spaniard perfectly.
Let him find his niche again, and Liverpool’s midfield jewel could be the difference between challenging and triumphing.