Soccer’s transfer market has come to act as a barometer of where clubs stand in the international pecking order, and Liverpool’s signing of Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich serves as proof of their return to the pinnacle.
The Reds confirmed on Friday that Thiago—a Bundesliga champion in each of his seven seasons at the Allianz Arena—will move to Anfield for $35 million. Liverpool have concluded considerably more expensive signings during Fenway Sports Group’s ownership, but this is the deal that forces their way back into the upper echelon, both from a performance standpoint and in terms of how they’re viewed by the rest of the sport’s nobility.
Few will doubt Liverpool’s place among the biggest clubs in the world. History counts for a lot—as many a Manchester City fan has been reminded in recent times—but 30 years without a league title left the Merseysiders yearning for past glories for a period.
It’s a strange prospect to think a club can be crowned kings of Europe and win the Premier League the next season and not be considered part of the established elite. Liverpool’s evolution under Jurgen Klopp took several years to reach maximum velocity—unless, of course, more is to come from his team—but the ability to complete a deal of Thiago’s magnitude is the finest indicator this era of success can be sustained, rather than be remembered as a flash in the pan.
Bayern’s decision to sell their midfield metronome for such a modest fee looks almost maniacal. Thiago turned 29 in April and was entering the last year of his contract at the Allianz, but even in a transfer economy hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, the payment looks paltry for a player so essential in steering Bayern to the treble last season.
That’s where the beauty of being Bayern pays off. Southampton and AS Roma coveted record fees when they sold talismans Virgil van Dijk and Allison to Liverpool, respectively, but Die Roten will be more capable of surviving even after they lose such a special talent, bargain fee or not.
Klopp’s current lineup is dotted from top to bottom with star talent, but the tag line that’s come to be associated with his Liverpool is that they don’t buy superstars, they make them. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Fabinho, Andrew Robertson, Joel Matip—all these players moved from more modest surroundings to play the best soccer of their careers under Klopp; the capture of Thiago is a different kind of statement, however, as touched upon by Andrew Beasley:
It’s significant that Thiago picked Merseyside as his next destination after winning the UEFA Champions League for the second time in his career. Having come to rely somewhat heavily on the strength of their world-class wingers and full-backs, Liverpool have now recruited a central passing outlet who single-handedly prises open their possibilities through the middle.
The former Barcelona playmaker—brought to Bavaria in 2013 when Pep Guardiola joined Bayern—would have his pick of clubs able to afford him, and Hansi Flick highlighted the loss his squad has suffered:
Xabi Alonso’s departure to Real Madrid in 2009 can be viewed as the antithesis of Thiago’s arrival (from a Liverpool perspective) and the base from which this rise back to the top began. The Reds had just finished second in the league, their best result in seven years at the time, but the decision to sell a fan favorite and one of their biggest talents hinted at a lack of ambition.
The opposite can be said of their move to recruit Thiago from the team who just pilfered their European perch, a serial winner whose arrival wholeheartedly upgrades a squad where weaknesses were already few and far between. Liverpool could have not closed the transfer books for 2020, and this summer's business would still be a considered a success (though agreeing a $58 million deal to sign Wolves forward Diogo Jota the next day is some follow-up act).
Maintaining motivation levels in a team that’s won the biggest prizes on offer is a prominent part of the challenge facing Klopp. Athletes from all walks often remark it’s not getting to the top that’s the hard part, it’s remaining there while one’s enemies make moves to usurp the throne.
Talk of Liverpool’s interest in Thiago first arose back in June, before it became clear Bayern were deserved favorites to win the Champions League, per Bild (via AS). The Spain international’s position among Europe’s most proficient pass-masters was already well known, but that sign-off only accentuated the talent they were luring, as well as the scale of their coup in convincing him.
Because, of course, signing a player like Thiago from a team like Bayern means significantly more than the move itself. More players, established and otherwise, will begin to wonder what it’s like to play for a manager like Klopp, lining up against some of the biggest names in the sport, figures who have won the biggest accolades on the biggest stages.
Soccer is cyclical, after all, and the most successful sides make a habit in moving ahead of the competition to ensure their time at the top lasts longer than their foes.
Klopp managed it at Borussia Dortmund—the only club not called “Bayern Munich” to have won back-to-back Bundesliga titles this millennium—and his forward-thinking attitude is still clear to see in England. It was during that period he became accustomed to his players having their gaze diverted to the Allianz; now, with Liverpool, he has the ability to strip Bayern of one of their best.
The coach is contracted at Liverpool until at least the summer of 2024, a sign if any was required that FSG are content with the direction they’re heading with him at the helm.
In spite of the club’s obvious progress since he replaced Brendan Rodgers in October 2015, there may have been fears Klopp’s first five years would end up being his most fruitful. Such a reaction would be only natural considering the rampant success that’s come to a club starved of it for so long.
One signing has the power to change that outlook, however, and Thiago’s arrival sends the message loud and clear: Liverpool have only finished Act I under Klopp, with the best of their story still to come.