By Max Gallagher (@Maxgallwrites)
It was cold and it was dark. In a champions league group game at Anfield, the ball sat up to be hit at the Kop end, and was smashed into the right hand side of the net. The crowd, tension released, erupted. Thiago Alcantara’s strike against Porto midweek will not be as pivotal as the one seventeen years ago that changed the direction of history for Liverpool. But it was an important moment nonetheless. It was a goal that said: I have arrived.
Football is full of surprises. Remember when Gary Neville was widely considered to be a vile, odious little twerp? When Sky Sports hired him as a pundit, most people thought that it was so he could be the bad guy – to play the Simon Cowell, or the Nasty Nigel to the handsome blue-blooded prince of punditry, Jamie Redknapp. Most people, then, were surprised whenever he started talking, and brought new life to Sky commentary with his sincere and urgent insights. There was nothing Jamie Redknapp could do to keep up. He even went so far as to pump his face full of chemicals and leave his wife, but all to no avail. Brilliant sentences just kept falling out of Neville’s mouth, often with that hypnotic blank look on his face. Other pundits simply couldn’t match him for words and brains. Redknapp was out in the cold, relegated to post match tunnel interviews and writing columns for right wing newspapers. The nation had a new darling of armchair sports digestion. We all loved him. You did. I did. We all did.
What I like most about Gary Neville is that he does not hold back in his praise for teams that were once his rivals. Some of his most gushing outpourings of enthusiasm have been for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Virgil Van Dyke and Mo Salah. But the most surprising thing I’ve ever heard him say came after the Liverpool versus Leeds game in late September: ‘I was watching Thiago today, and he just reminded me of Paul Scholes,’ Neville purred. ‘In those big games we used to play, the games against the likes of Arsenal when everything would be frantic and rushed, and then there’d just be this little guy in the middle of the pitch calming everything down. Thiago has done exactly what Liverpool brought him in to do.’
As I heard this, my jaw nearly hit the floor. There is an unwritten rule that no one is allowed to compare anyone to Paul Scholes. It is prohibited. Like looking the emperor in the eye in the forbidden city, or grabbing a centurion’s balls. Even mentioning Paul Scholes in this way can get you into serious trouble. Especially if you’re a Manc. Especially if you’re a United fan. Especially if you graduated from the same famous class of ‘92 youth team that Paul Scholes did. As far as compliments go, this was like Buzz Aldrin comparing somebody to the Moon. Praise just doesn’t come any higher than this.
The Spaniard’s debut was a sumptuous affair, perhaps my favourite of all time. There had been a long summer of flirting between Bavaria and Merseyside. Karl Heinz Rumenigge would drop his handkerchief, and then gaze longingly across the Rhineland as he peeked from behind his fan, waiting for Liverpool to respond. Months and months of this went on, until we started to wonder if it had just been newspaper guff all along. In a typical piece of Michael Edwards brinkmanship however, the deal was done at the death, for the small matter of an initial £20million. The talk was that this guy was the real deal. His actual surname is Do Nascimiento – the same as Pele’s. His father, Mazinho, was a Brazilian international who won the world cup in 1994. But those that had read Pep Guardiola’s autobiography murmered that it might not be that straight forward Alcantara had been Pep’s first signing at Bayern, but hadn’t impressed, and failed to nail down a regular starting spot under his former Barcelona manager. Without a pre-season and having missed the start of the league campaign already, we didn’t quite know what to expect from our new signing. How would he bed in? Where would he play? When would he play?
Klopp elected to unleash Thiago on the world at half time in a home game against Chelsea. The blues were a different prospect under Lampard, and had just had a player sent off. Henderson was subbed, Thiago came on, and the world loved every single minute of it. It was more like being at the circus than watching a football match. With Chelsea sitting back, Thiago had almost the entire pitch to himself to demonstrate his entire repertoire of passing. There were dinks, prods, pokes and knocks. Chips, wedges, curls and lobs. Nibbles, tickles, tiki and taka. Fizzes, pings, sprays and drills. All of this without getting out of first gear. It was like an audience with Thiago. Thiago the musical. Thiago on Ice. After the game, a 2-0 win for Liverpool, Peter Crouch tweeted: ‘Thiago is gonna be a joy to watch.’ And that’s how we all felt. This season was going to go so smoooothly.
Alas. What followed was complete and utter chaos – the worst period in Klopp’s reign. It was as if the Gods of soft tissue and ligament injuries had picked up the entire club and upended it like a snow globe. Our very own winter of discontent had begun, and no one knew when it was going to end. Thiago himself was hacked down in the midst of the slaughter of the famous Red Wedding of Goodison Park. The defence were as skittles in a bowling alley. Juergen Klopp had no choice but to pull senior midfielders out of place to cover, leaving the centre of the team badly exposed.
By Christmas we were just about hanging together, but still in contention for the major trophies. Whilst little children looked to the sky in search of Santa Claus, there was another name on the lips of Liverpool fans. Thiago. When Thiago comes back from injury it will be okay won’t it? Thiago will fix everything. Despite his glittering skill and his La Masia schooling, Thiago was actually brought in as a defensive midfielder. At Bayern, his stats told the story. He had fewer goals and assists than any of the other midfielders, but had the greatest number of tackles and interceptions during his spell at the Allianz. The maestro had been the lynchpin, as opposed to the desequilibriante. This took me by surprise – this little guy, who I’ve been watching on Youtube all summer? He’s a defensive player? The guy who lets the ball beat him whilst wiggling his arse, showing that you can roll a six-foot-four defender and salsa dance at the same time? If his stats were correct, then Liverpool could dare to dream that we had a player on our hands. Perhaps even that mythical creature – the complete midfielder.
Before Thiago had arrived, Liverpool have been doing rather well, beating every other football team in the world and winning every single trophy in the process. They were a functioning unit, a finely tuned machine, a well drilled platoon. The group had been together for a long time, and formed that rare thing seen nowadays – a team. Liverpool were a throwback to the days when footballers used to spend years in each other’s company. Teammates would go round to one another’s houses on Christmas Day to smoke fags and presumably shag one another’s wives. Having played together for so long, everyone was on the same wavelength and everyone – even squad players – knew exactly what their role was. Under Klopp, the defence began to climb higher and higher up the pitch with the confidence of a horny dog. The midfield trio formed a battering ram as formidable as the Macedonian phalanx. Firmino had perfected the false nine role, hovering in gaps and spaces, like a Matador teasing and drawing defences out of position, to make space for the fianchetto of Mane and Salah. Everything was ticketyboo. Until it wasn’t.
The worst thing about our injury crisis last season was that it was making a mockery of our first title defence for thirty years. No one thought things could get any worse. But then of course, they did. And although no one could blame Thiago for what happened next, it will hardly be the highlight of his CV that Liverpool had gone fifty-four matches unbeaten at home by the time he returned from injury, but after he had been re-introduced into the team, Liverpool not only blew that spectacular statistic with a limp performance against Burnley, but went on to notch up a record six home defeats in a row. It didn’t say much about the immediate impact of the Spaniard. So much for that sumptuous debut.
Gini Wijnaldum’s mind was clearly elsewhere, and Thiago was thrown in at the deep end to shore up a team that were falling apart. It was like tossing a paper aeroplane into a tornado. Opposition teams smelled blood, and were tearing into Liverpool like never before, taking full advantage of our new psychological and personnel weaknesses. Thiago was trying to adapt to a new culture and to find his feet in the middle of a maelstrom. On the ball he was ineffective and subdued, off the ball he was chasing shadows. Like a cork bobbing around on the surface of tempestuous waters, Thiago was all at sea. Most commentators concluded that the pace of the Premier League was just too much for him. Liverpool fans watched through their fingers. It was a horror show. One of my friends texted me drily: ‘I see Liverpool are shite again.’
Football is full of surprises. No one can pinpoint the exact moment it turned around. But at some point, Nat Phillips put his magic hat on. Along with Rhys Williams, they put together the most unlikely heroic partnership since Turner and Hooch. Klopp had found his settled back four, and Liverpool began to look a bit like themselves again. With Fabinho and Henderson back in midfield, we started to see glimpses of the Thiago Alcantara we had read about and seen playing on the continent. The guy who had almost single handedly played Chelsea like a musical instrument. Then Diogo Jota thumped in a left footed finish against his former club Wolves, and it was on.
Ten games to go. Liverpool were eight points outside the top four, sitting in eighth place. The teams around us were all formidable, but we did have a kind fixture list. Was it possible? Of course it was. Thiago was at the centre of everything as Liverpool finished the season the form team in the league, playing like champions again. Thiago found the niggle and the grit and the fuck you part of his game, imposing himself on games and disrupting teams who liked to play. But on the ball, he was just sublime to watch. The little guy in the centre of the pitch, just calming everything down. At his best, he is perhaps the first truly world class midfielder to play for us since the dream team combination of Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherano. Perversely, I think I enjoyed last season as much as the previous two, when we won the league and champions league. Although we finished without a trophy last year, it was such a rollercoaster, with so many twists and turns. Buddhists say it is the journey, not the destination that matters. Maybe that counts for sports too. Maybe the Buddha was talking about Thiago the entire time. All things must pass. Jesus, it all makes sense when you think about it.
He still has his critics, and has a long way to go to prove he can really stamp down his authority in this team. But this season he started as he had left off, in imperious form. Once more, Liverpool were a fine-tuned machine, putting teams to the sword, but with a new look midfield of Thiago, Fabinho and Elliott. Unfortunately, this seasons rhythm has again been interrupted by injury, most notably to the youngster Elliott, but also to the veteran Spaniard. Tellingly, Thiago was missing from the starting line-up for the defeat to West Ham. Fitness may ultimately be the major factor in how much he can contribute to this Liverpool project. Only time will tell.
On Wednesday night, FC Porto arrived at Anfield for their ritual mauling. Porto are a solid defensive team with great attacking options, but for some reason when facing Liverpool, Porto behave like a teenage girl at a Beatles concert. But here they played well, until the hour mark when the ball sat up for Thiago, skipping across the surface, whispering hit me, hit me. The technique was extraordinary, struck with venom by a player clearly full of confidence. He opened his foot up and picked his spot almost disdainfully, like a Victorian judge sending a peasant to the gallows. There was nothing dismissive about the celebration however. He celebrated like a midfielder who doesn’t score enough. Like a player who feels he is going to make an impact this year, in a team that is going to make an impact. Like a player who is growing, growing, growing.
What a hit son. What a hit.