Thiago’s return may be the jewel in Liverpool’s star-studded run-in

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.

It was perhaps only seen as a minor detail, then, as Thiago took to the field to replace Jordan Henderson with 78 minutes on the clock and three goals on the scoreboard.

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 6th, 2022: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara during the FA Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Cardiff City FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Thiago kept things simple, presiding over a midfield battle that had lost much of its bluster, attempting 23 passes, completing 22 and setting up a late shot on goal for Diogo Jota.

It was, in many ways, a microcosm of his influence at Liverpool.

Despite the fanfare upon his arrival from Bayern Munich, and those blockbuster goals against Porto and Southampton earlier in the campaign, Thiago‘s role is predominantly an understated one.

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:

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.

Henderson, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all failed to impose themselves, with it taking the return of Curtis Jones to settle things down.

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, December 16, 2021: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Newcastle United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 24, 2021: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara celebrates after scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 5 game between Liverpool FC and FC Porto at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

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.

Statistics courtesy of Flashscore – see more in-depth Liverpool match data here.