When Marcelo Bielsa joined Lille in the summer of 2017, he had a mass overhaul of the Ligue 1 side’s squad. With such a big name in the manager’s seat, LOSC, as they are known, suddenly became a much more attractive proposition.
The club that produced Eden Hazard and Benjamin Pavard looked like they were serious about returning to the top of the French football world, but their 2017/18 season was a disaster. After spending no less than €64 million on players and more on new training facilities, expectations were high.
Thiago Maia was one of three young stars who made the trip from Brazil to northeastern France and much was expected of the revitalised Lille squad under the stewardship of the highly rated Argentine coach.
By the end of the campaign, Bielsa was long gone, following an unceremonious sacking and subsequent legal challenges over his payout, and the club scraped into a 17th placed finish, avoiding the relegation playoff by a single point.
Maia played the vast majority of the domestic season, featuring in 34 of their 38 matches. So why is there such interest in a player who was part of one of the most disappointing team performances across Europe last season?
Before his season in France, Maia turned out for Santos in Brazil, the same club from which Neymar emerged. At Santos, he quickly established himself as a starter in central midfield and became a key part of the team while he was still a teenager.
Maia partnered the experienced Renato in the middle of the park and was the hard-working ball winner who diligently regained possession for his side before offloading the ball to his teammates. His fantastic work in front of the back four made clubs in Europe take notice, but it was LOSC who took a gamble on the youngster.
This defensive role meant that the Brazilian was the anchorman of the Santos team and was rarely involved in attacks, but this was unimportant, as his responsibility was to act as a shield for the back four who played behind him. His three goals over three seasons was a bonus to his work rather than a disappointment.
Before turning 20, Maia had already played over 60 games for Santos, showing how key he was to their setup. His performances in the Campeonato Brasileiro convinced Lille to part with over £12m to secure his services.
There was never any doubt about his talent, but Lille failed to get the best out of him.
His move to France did not grant him the same position as he played in Brazil. Ibrahim Amadou, the (now former) Lille captain, specialises in the defensive midfield role too, and had priority over the deeper-lying position given he had already established himself in the side.
Maia then had to play in a more advanced role and his focus was less on ball recovery and more on creating play. In his last full season with Santos, he averaged 3.1 tackles and two interceptions per game compared with just 1.6 and 1.8 respectively for Lille in 2017/18.
He did not blossom offensively in the slightly more advanced role either, making marginally fewer key passes per game and dropping his pass completion rate by 2%.
If a manager is to get the best out of Maia, he will have to be afforded to play in the deeper position and focus mostly on intercepting forward passes.
Newcastle are one team rumoured to be interested in the Brazilian, and with the departure of Mikel Merino, he could fit into the side.
Jonjo Shelvey is a fantastic passer of the ball, but can be reckless when trying to regain possession and his discipline has always been a problem. If Maia can be partnered with the Englishman to act as his ball winner, it could be a strong combination.
Lille’s last campaign was one to forget, and Thiago Maia won’t look back with much delight at his first year in Europe. He is still a talented player, though, and deserves another shot in the role in which he excels.
If he can be given the anchorman role and paired with creative teammates, he could strike a good balance in a two or three-man midfield, and allow his colleagues to refrain from some of their defensive work.
It will still be a battle, Maia has much to prove after a disappointing year, and a loan move could be more favourable for a team unwilling to gamble on a long-term deal for him. He definitely has the ability, but he now has to show that last season was a one off.