Jürgen Klopp says Liverpool signed the best midfielders in the Bundesliga when they acquired Naby Keïta in 2018 and Thiago Alcântara two years later. The duo cost a combined £81m but it has taken them time to make a consistent impact, something Everton may find out to their coston Sunday.
While eight-figure transfer fees may raise expectations, Keïta and Thiago have taken their time to peak in a Liverpool shirt, honing their qualities in the centre of midfield.
Each has endured spells on the sidelines at crucial points that have curtailed their momentum. Keïta has endured hamstring, ankle and knee problems but has been unavailable for one game since early December. Thiago contracted Covid on arrival in England and that was followed by a knee injury in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park last season in his second appearance for the club.
At the start of April, Keïta declared after almost four years at Anfield: “I don’t believe we’ve seen the real Naby Keïta just yet.” His lowest moment was being replaced after 42 minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions quarter-final defeat at Real Madrid last season, his final appearance of the campaign.
Some feared his Liverpool career was over at that point. The Guinean, however, has since found the rhythm Klopp was convinced he could. Regular appearances have allowed the 27-year-old to be more effective when pressing in the areas he aims to dominate.
As a player who likes to dictate the tempo of a game, getting up to speed with the Premier League was important for Thiago, whose role can be to slow a match down when necessary. In the early stages of his Anfield career that seemed to show an inability to cope with the pace of English football. Instead, it was just his way of showing how in control of a match he can be at the right times.
Thiago is one of the most technically gifted operators in the league. Despite not being particularly physical or quick, his speed of mind keeps him ahead of the opposition. The 31-year-old has settled off the pitch, aiding his development on it. The Italy-born Spain midfielder with Brazilian parents is considering putting down permanent roots in the north-west with his wife and two children when he retires.
A sign Thiago is now in sync with the pace of the Premier League is that he is committing fewer fouls this season compared with his first in England. If a player is fouling opponents, it implies they are not in the right position defensively but the tenacious Thiago has corrected this, going from 2.5 fouls per 90 minutes in 2020-21 to 1.6 this campaign.
Thiago understands his teammates and their positions, and vice versa. He is looking to break the lines and keep Liverpool advancing up the pitch, whether it is with a short, sharp pass or a crossfield delivery into space.
Thiago and Keïta have been paired together for some of Liverpool’s most destructive performances this season, including their Champions League victory at Benfica and the FA Cup semi-final defeat of Manchester City, alongside Fabinho. This could be the preferred combination for the biggest matches in the run-in.
Patience in football is a quality rarely seen but Klopp is a manager who has faith in those he has signed. He knows if his players have the right environment and conditions, they will improve under his guidance.
From having two of the Bundesliga’s best midfielders, Klopp has two of the finest in the Premier League. As Klopp said: “That’s cool.”