Thiago remains the cool ball-playing scamp whether Liverpool are hot or cold
There was a good Jürgen Klopp moment during Liverpool’s win at Southampton on Tuesday night. Nathan Redmond had just opened the scoring. The goal had come after a collision with a Liverpool player, drawing a minor wave of protest from the bench. Klopp has a standard move in these touchline moments: a bark of rage, a sudden pirouette, a flurry of air-punches like a man whirling around to fend off a late night pickpocket.
This time he did something new and much more haunting, standing totally still on the touchline and simply pointing at the referee with a long bony finger – and then carrying on pointing for what felt like ages, eyes ablaze, coat tails billowing, like some terrifying medieval woodcut called The Guilt of Man.
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It seemed fair enough. There are no specific FA regulations outlawing sorrowful, haunting looks. Plus this was never likely to matter much. It always seemed likely that Liverpool would win at St Mary’s, that this wasn’t the story here, and that the title race would come down to the final round of fixtures this weekend.
Let’s face it, despite our best attempts to find clear air between them, these are two remarkably well-matched modern juggernauts. Both managers have claimed to be underdogs in recent weeks: Pep Guardiola because everyone supports Liverpool (narrator: everyone doesn’t support Liverpool); Klopp because of having to play so many games in all these damn tournaments we keep winning.
Tactically Liverpool are still seen as a “hot” team, a feral, frantic thing, playing on the edge of their own emotions. Whereas City are often portrayed as a cold, frictionless entity, wearing their opponents down with their beautiful geometric patterns, their slow-burn migraine-football.
Has it really been like that? It was City who lost an uncontrolled, wildly entertaining Champions League semi-final 7-6 on aggregate, City who have scored more goals than any other team this season. Whereas Liverpool have been winning comfortably, exercising control, basing their suffocating press on a very clever VAR-friendly high defensive line.
There has been another element, too, in the last few weeks. The elevation of Thiago Alcântara to the status of key midfield component hasn’t exactly been overlooked. But it does run contrary to those received ideas. Right now Liverpool’s midfield is being run by the most classically Guardiola footballer imaginable, a player whose obsession with passing and pure technique is now almost a kind of anachronism.
Thiago will probably start against Wolves and against Real Madrid in Paris. His season has been injury-addled, but he got his rhythm back against Brighton in mid-March and was ever-present in an unbeaten 15-game run from Arsenal away to the FA Cup final last weekend.
Luis Díaz and Sadio Mané were the headline stars in that time. But it seems significant that Thiago has been quietly masterful playing just behind on the left of midfield, a footballer who spends every moment of every game diligently rewiring the house, grouting the bathroom, stitching together the floor joists; and above all playing cold, his entire presence based on the idea that there is always time and space, that this is simply another moment in his own ongoing deep personal relationship with the ball.
This is not to suggest Thiago is the best midfielder, that he has the same deep gears as Luka Modric or Kevin De Bruyne, or that his presence means Liverpool will now win the quadruple. He is just a joy to watch, and a note of contrast too, a bandy-legged scruff in the middle of all those super-lithe athletes, with that extraordinary ability to absorb the ball from any angle, swallowing it up like a drop of rain falling into a puddle.
He does odd little things, looking away as a pass is coming to him, scanning the world from side-on like a bird, then rolling his foot over the ball as he takes it, just because he likes the feel. It must be liberating to play next to him in these white knuckle games. Here is a footballer who is almost aggressively relaxed, who breathes easiest when the oxygen is most scarce. Even his shin-pads are shaved to the absolute minimum for that classic ball-playing scamp aesthetic, shin-pads that say yes, come close if you like, but I will be keeping this ball.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Thiago has found a role at Liverpool. He is already club football royalty, a veteran of nine league titles and two Champions Leagues. But there was plenty of talk at the start that he would be unsuited to Liverpool’s “hot” style (which is also often cold, which also involves keeping the ball). He look spooked at times as injuries and defeats piled up last winter. But in the last 14 months Liverpool have only lost one game when Thiago has started. And there are a couple of things worth saying about how it has worked.
Firstly he is to some extent an old fashioned footballer, a visitor from the near-past. Thiago is “always the ball” made flesh, a player who more than anyone else still playing feels likes an embodiment of early Pep-ball, the passing game that seemed for a while – glossed by Lionel Messi’s brilliance – to be the new world order.
There has been no evolution here, no positional shifts, no postmodernism. That agreeably scruffy 20-year-old midfield skill-sprite is now an agreeably scruffy 30-year-old midfield skill-sprite. In the meantime football has kept on evolving, and Thiago has often seemed to miss his mark slightly.
With Barcelona and Spain he came into his own just as the good times ceased to roll. He was good at Bayern, but his best moment ended up being a plague-shadowed Champions League that, frankly, no one wants to remember. And now we have this, Liverpool’s own note of control just as the season narrows to its frantic end point. Who knows, the last few months might just end up a career high for the man with the ball at his feet.