Some athletes look like they have grafted their way to the top. They are hard work in a nutshell, the 10,000 hours rule personified, grimacing, sweating and busting a gut as they go about doing what they do best.
Some athletes make whatever they pull off look absolutely effortless. They’ve put in the hours too, but everything just appears easy, smooth and off the cuff.
Thiago Alcantara definitely falls into the second camp.
The Spaniard oozes class – world class, for that matter. He is elegant and graceful. He sees what others don’t and executes instinctive passes accordingly. He makes football look like art.
Thiago’s unique style is a result of his diverse upbringing. The midfielder is a melting pot of Brazilian flair and quick feet – his father Mazinho played 35 times for the Brazil national team, and Thiago spent five years in the Flamengo youth system – and Barcelona’s Tiki-taka meets Total Football club philosophy.
The 29-year-old completed his footballing education in Barcelona’s esteemed La Masia academy, making his first steps into the senior team in 2009. The Barcelona DNA is oh so evident in Thiago’s style of play, with his exquisite passing technique, vision and distribution.
He is very much the one that got away for Barcelona. With two fellow technically gifted La Masia alumnus – Andres Iniesta and Xavi – limiting his first team opportunities at Camp Nou, it was another La Masia midfield graduate who made it his mission to sign Thiago.
“I spoke to the club and told them about my concept and told them why I want Thiago. He is the only player that I want. It will be him or no one.”
– Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola – the man who had handed 18-year-old Thiago his first team debut at Barcelona – took the Bayern Munich hot seat in 2013, and Thiago was top of his wish list.
The pair share a love for control, logic and intensity. Guardiola made it very clear that a reunion with his former player was a priority at the Allianz Arena.
It was a match made in heaven. When he played, he was brilliant. Unfortunately, he didn’t play that often. Thiago’s first two seasons at Bayern were blighted by injury, and he made just 23 Bundesliga appearances.
But once his fitness returned, Thiago was instrumental. During the entirety of Bayern’s 2016/17 Bundesliga title-winning campaign, his passing accuracy was 90.2%.
The 2019/20 Bayern Munich team is one of the finest club sides in European football history. They were a well oiled machine, sending records tumbling as they energetically pressed and passed their way to the treble. Thiago was an integral part of this all-time great side.
The Spanish international was frequently deployed in the deep lying midfield role alongside Leon Goretzka or Joshua Kimmich. In the 2019/20 Champions League final, it was the former. With Goretzka’s all action style and Thiago’s calmness and composure, the pair complemented one another majestically.
Thiago turned in a stunning performance against PSG. He made 85 passes – 26 more than any other player – and only David Alaba bettered Thiago’s 88.2% passing accuracy. No player created more chances or completed more successful long passes.
But statistics never tell the full story with Thiago. You cannot boil his irresistible first touch or insane passing technique down to a statistic.
“He does not wait for the gaps to appear. He makes them appear.”
– Michael Ballack
Thiago can pluck the ball out of the air and it will stick to his laces like glue. But it’s his trademark touch and turn when receiving the ball on the half turn inside his own half that really catches the eye. His awareness to take the ball with the outside of his boot and dart past his opponent in one, swift, effortless movement is mesmeric. The shake of the hips, the shifting of his weight; defenders cannot get near him.
He pulled this off time and time again in the Champions League final. The pressure of the biggest stage of all did not phase him. It was this performance that is said to have sealed the deal for Jurgen Klopp, leaving the Liverpool boss in no doubt that Thiago would be the perfect addition to his already pretty perfect team.
Like Hansi Flick’s Bayern, Liverpool are also an energetic, all action pressing machine. And for all the elegant touches, the delicate passes and the graceful quick feet, Thiago is this too. Out of possession he is like a terrier, bursting after the ball with a relentless intensity and work rate that someone with his supreme technical ability could sometimes get away with not having.
Football is a team sport, and non more so in a team like Klopp’s Liverpool or Flick’s Bayern, where everyone’s role is an intricate piece to a perfectly constructed puzzle.
But sometimes, you could quite easily just spend 90 minutes watching Thiago. Watching his crisp passing, his razor sharp vision, his outrageous control, his supreme footballing brain. If you wanted to show someone why football was called the beautiful game, you’d show them Thiago.