As the game ebbed towards its unsatisfying, soft-pedalled conclusion, with their team losing 2-0 and down to 10 men, the Leeds fans decided to make their own entertainment. “Who’s the scouser in the black?” they chanted at the referee Craig Pawson after a litany of decisions had gone against them. When Pawson finally gave them a free-kick in a dangerous position, they cheered for a full 30 seconds. Apropos of very little, Sky TV was disparaged in the most industrial language.
In a way, this was a measure of just how effectively Liverpool had done their jobs here: one of the most hostile home crowds in the country reduced to ironic referee-baiting and complaints about the fixture list. There was a quiet ruthlessness to the way Jürgen Klopp’s side got their goals at the start of each half and then simply coasted their way to a comfortable victory: one admittedly tinged with sadness after the injury to Harvey Elliott.
On the pitch, too, Leeds have lots of ways to hurt you. But very few of them seemed to work here: Patrick Bamford marked out of the game, Raphinha and Jack Harrison starved and squeezed, Kalvin Phillips too busy filling holes in defence to get anything going. Most of all, Leeds’s trademark attack – the finely tuned pinball blitzkrieg through midfield – was almost entirely absent, stifled and outmanoeuvred and ultimately thrown back in their faces.
If you wanted to be harsh on Thiago Alcântara, you could point out that Leeds are the sort of team that should suit him: a team whose endless running and rotation creates the sort of shifting spaces he loves to exploit. More generously, his first start of the season was a quite lovely thing to watch: a masterclass in vision and courage on the ball that was justly rewarded in injury time when he assisted Sadio Mané’s long overdue goal.
We should be clear about what is meant by courage. In English footballing parlance it is often used to describe physical bravery: rain-sodden sliding tackles, heroic blocks, putting your head in unwise places. Thiago’s courage, by contrast, is one of conviction: the resolve required to accept the ball when someone twice your size is jostling you for it, the determination to play a risky pass through a gap rather than a safe pass backwards.
Occasionally, and wrongly, Thiago is described as a specialist in the latter: a sideways-passer, a stat-padder. In fact, since arriving in English football last summer it has been possible to detect a certain furtive disrespect towards one of the world’s finest midfielders of the last decade: usually in the dustier corners of the internet, but sometimes also from respected former pros in the media. Dietmar Hamann has described him as a poor fit for Klopp’s system. John Barnes reckons he slows Liverpool down. Certainly his first season at Anfield, pock-marked by injuries, a disrupted pre-season and an indifferent team, was some way short of his finest.
And there are times when, through little fault of his own, Thiago can look like a lot of so-what. His job isn’t to make gaps but to find them, and when the movement in front of him is as inert as it was for much of last season, clearly his options are going to be limited. But when the movement is good and the gaps start appearing – however fleetingly – there are few players better at finding them.
Liverpool’s first goal was an obvious example. As he picked up the ball on the left, the simple pass was backwards to Virgil van Dijk. Bamford was advancing on the Dutchman in anticipation, and so when Thiago instead played a harder pass along the ground to Joël Matip, the Cameroonian had 30 yards of space to run into: space from which he would create Mohamed Salah’s goal.
It’s only by watching Thiago in close detail that you realise what he’s really up to. He’s like a little swivelling robot, playing around with angles and side-steps and glances and body positions in an attempt to find the perfect pass. “His head is always on a pivot,” his teammate Nat Phillips has said, and nowhere was this more evident than early in the second half, when he held off Stuart Dallas, sent him to Skipton with a drop of the shoulder and immediately released Salah with a crossfield pass.
There is, of course, another factor in play here. For much of last season, Fabinho was forced to play in defence as a result of Liverpool’s injury problems. Now released back into midfield, he and Thiago have struck up a pleasingly textural understanding in a shape that often more closely resembles a 4-2-4 than a 4-3-3. Fabinho bundled in Liverpool’s second goal from close range but his real value was further back: sweeping up, covering the spaces, the foil that allows Thiago to be a little braver.
The evolution of Liverpool’s midfield in the last two or three seasons has probably taken a little longer than expected: hampered by the pandemic, the injury crisis of last season, the failure of Naby Keïta into the £53m general Liverpool hoped it would be.
The injury to Elliott was a reminder that there will be plenty of setbacks along the way. But there were times here, as Thiago and Fabinho gently wove their patterns, easing the game out of Leeds’ control, when you got a glimpse of how it may all work.