It would be near impossible to describe what Liverpool did to Manchester United on Tuesday without getting graphic, and perhaps using a squib or two. And believe me, I’ve tried, because I’m well aware the Reds may never beat their biggest rival by a combined 9-0 in two league games again, and I’m soaking in it to the point of pruning. Certainly United’s unconscionable level of disorganization and disinterest contributed heavily to their flogging. Whether Ralf Ragnick simply can’t install his ideas to these players, or they can’t carry them out, or they simply don’t care, the result was a team sort of just wandering around Anfield as if it were a mall on a Tuesday afternoon and they just wanted to find the electronics store.
Ragnick’s idea for a two-man midfield in something that was supposed to resemble a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 essentially let Liverpool’s midfield three strut and preen however they wished. Which became a four when Sadio Mane dropped in from the forward line as the three United central defenders all looked at each other and pointed and wondered if he was legally allowed to do that. That kind of space and disconnection allowed goals like this:
Generally, it’s not a good idea when two of your opponents are free to sprint with each other to a through-ball with no competition. Harry Maguire, who becomes an ode to drowning with each passing week, didn’t follow Mane into midfield, nor did he try to block off the ball behind him into that space, and just stood there while the castle gate was open saying to himself, “Gee I hope this roving horde doesn’t notice the castle gate is open!”
Or that kind of haze and ennui can lead teams to just go through, over, and around you like you’re the dude in the metal sphere with the three motorcyclists spinning wildly around it:
This is usually the point where you chuck the controller through the drywall as you know the 13-year-old in Germany is giggling his ass off as he domes you in FIFA. You can’t react anywhere near fast enough. This only encapsulates that last few passes of the move, but it included 25 passes in the buildup, and maybe one of them did a United player get within two yards of the ball.
Liverpool essentially stepped off the gas then and still added two goals late to win 4-0. Whereas their 5-0 fustigation of United at Old Trafford in the fall was more a signature of fury and ruthlessness, as Liverpool played at a speed that United simply couldn’t match, this was more a measure of arrogant control. Liverpool didn’t have to play at pace, didn’t have to push and push and push. They simply kept the ball for as long as they wanted and did whatever they felt like with it. If a soccer match was ever just big brother keeping his hand on little brother’s forehead to keep him at safe distance, this was it.
As Gary Neville put it on the UK broadcast, this is nothing.
At the heart of everything Liverpool did was Thiago, who had one of the best matches anyone has had in the Premier League this season. Yes, he was afforded all the space and time he could have asked for in a fantasy, but special players do special things with that. Like this:
Thiago misplaced exactly five passes all night, and this isn’t some guy just knocking it back to his defenders or hitting it sideways five yards to another midfielder. There are crossfield switches, 40-yard through-balls, intricate interchanges around and through defenders. It’s all this:
Liverpool had another midfielder who could nip a gnat’s ass with a pass from 40 yards that stole my heart in Xabi Alonso. But Alonso couldn’t create space for himself the way Thiago can. There is more than just the passing. It’s the shoulder feints and hip swivels that get him out of and around challenges and open up the field. Thiago’s touch is feathery to the point of farce. Until it’s time to snap a pass through the lines and into a forward that sticks like velcro. It’s as if the ball is telling the receiver, “Hurry, we don’t have much time!” while taking the receiver with it toward the goal. That touch returns when Thiago floats a crossfield ball to a winger or full back that lands as if it’s been parachuted in.
I mention the rare player who can slow down the game when they get the ball/puck often. Where all the other players slow or stop in fear of what might come next. They go into some sort of DEFCON level, merely hoping to protect any openings. Thiago seems to not slow everyone but cause them to go into slow motion while he remains at the same controlled speed. Players don’t slow or stop, he slows or stops them. While the last few X-Men movies were ass, the scenes where Quicksilver would move about as everyone else was frozen or barely moving to illustrate how much faster he moved were always expertly done.
Thiago doesn’t physically move like that, but his mind does. He’s already picked out the space or angle for a pass he wants two passes before he gets the ball. Especially when allowed to saunter as he was by United. Those passes he whips 30 yards to the front three from an angle we couldn’t see snaps everyone from a slumber he put them in. He doesn’t pass so much as open a portal. He’s just listening to a different song, or leading a different band, than the other 21 players out there. It’s easy to see why Barcelona had tipped him to succeed Xavi when the time came, and why they were so miffed when he didn’t want to wait around.
He’s got his own beat, and he makes everyone else dance to it.