'Thiago took the p*ss!' - How Liverpool's Spanish maestro has got Klopp and Anfield purring

Thiago Alcantara Liverpool Getty Images

The ovation lasted close to a minute, and no wonder.

Anfield loves its footballers, and it rose to salute one of the best around on Tuesday night, as Thiago Alcantara delivered a performance to remember against Manchester United.

There were plenty of things for Liverpool fans to enjoy during their side’s 4-0 win; the return to goalscoring form of Mohamed Salah, the continued brilliance of Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz or the painful, ongoing struggles of their greatest rivals, to name just a few.

And yet it was Thiago who stood out, the midfielder’s class and swagger a cut above the rest. “He took the p*ss,” suggested Gary Neville, the former United captain, on commentary, and it was hard to disagree.

The Spaniard has been doing a lot of that of late, playing with a confidence and a sharpness that few can match, and which has supporters and pundits drooling.

"A master at work," posted the official Liverpool Twitter account on Friday afternoon, and you didn't need to be a genius to realise who would be in the accompanying picture.

A clip of Thiago warming up last Tuesday, posted on Instagram, had received more than 8.6m plays at the time of writing.

With his touches, his no-look passes and his ability to glide away from tackles with the grace of a ballet dancer, he is a social media editor's dream, never mind a manager's.

Three days prior to the United game, Thiago had starred at Wembley as Liverpool defeated Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. Prior to that he was one of the few Reds players to perform as the Premier League’s top two drew 2-2 at the Etihad.

He has already matched his appearance total (30) from last season, and as Klopp’s side head into the final, decisive weeks of the campaign, the former Bayern Munich man looks to be peaking at exactly the right time.

Not that Klopp wishes to get too excited, mind.

“Yes, it’s great,” said the Reds boss ahead of Sunday’s Merseyside derby with Everton. “But I don’t want to talk too much about one player, not because the player doesn’t deserve it, but because always when we do that then something [an injury] happens with the player!

“So I leave this room and someone tells me ‘Thiago feels a little bit here or there’. Yes, [his form] was great, now let’s carry on!”

Klopp’s caution is understandable. It was, after all, a game against Everton which set Thiago back following his move to Anfield in 2020.

A tackle from Richarlison, in the final minutes of a 2-2 draw which also saw Virgil van Dijk suffer a long-term injury, would keep him sidelined for more than three months. By the time he returned, Liverpool’s Premier League title defence had begun to unravel, and not even he could fix things.

That led to some harsh assessments, with Dietmar Hamann, the former Reds midfielder, one of the most vocal critics.

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Hamann is no fan of Klopp, it should be said, and is a regular dissenting voice, but his suggestion that Thiago slowed Liverpool’s play down, and that he may not be suited to their all-action style, was one that was shared by more than a few fans and commentators.

Klopp was incredulous when reminded of such criticism on Friday.

“People were questioning if he suits our football?!” he told reporters. “Thank God these people don’t make decisions!”

Thiago, he insisted, had only one problem following his switch from Munich.

“He was injured, and it started with an Everton game. But there was never a question about whether he would suit us. We only signed him because we knew he would help us. He knew he would fit in and we knew it as well.”

Another ex-Red, former striker Dirk Kuyt, believes it is no coincidence that all of Liverpool’s forwards - whether it is Salah, Mane, Diaz, Diogo Jota or Roberto Firmino - have been firing of late. Having a player like Thiago, he says, means the team will always create chances.

“As a forward, it’s so nice when you have someone like him,” Kuyt tells GOAL. “You just know you have to make the movement, run into the space and you could close your eyes and the ball will appear! That makes life really easy.”

The balance of Liverpool’s midfield is something which has debated at length, even as the Reds have achieved greatness at home and abroad in recent years. It has, for some time, been seen as a potential weakness, an area to be strengthened and developed.

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That may still be the case, with James Milner’s contract expiring this summer, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain approaching the final year of theirs and Jordan Henderson set to celebrate his 32nd birthday in June.

There is rich potential in the likes of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Tyler Morton, as well as new signing Fabio Carvalho, but for now, with big trophies in sight, keeping Thiago fit and firing is vital for Klopp.

He has made only 19 starts this season. If he finishes the campaign with 26 or 27, say, then Liverpool will have gone close to getting everything they ever dreamed of.

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“He’s one of the best midfielders in the world,” says Kuyt. “You see now that he’s comfortable, he’s enjoying his football and he fits so well with the team.

“I played with some great midfield players, Xabi Alonso and Stevie Gerrard, and yes you can compare him to them. But for me he’s Thiago. He’s one on his own, and a joy to watch.”

Anfield would certainly agree, and so would Klopp - even if he'd rather keep it to himself for the time being.