clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Thiago Alcántara: The One That Got Away?

With Thiago Alcántara set to return to the Camp Nou for the first time since he left in 2013, Ahmed explores whether he is the one that got away.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

It's the memories that last a life time. A baby boy in diapers playing on the sandy beach by the splashing waves under a star-filled sky with nothing more than a football. This is the tattoo Thiago got on his right arm as soon as he turned 18. A timeless tribute to an old photograph taken by his parents while on a beach in Italy when he was only 14 months old, a sight bound to bring about pure nostalgia in just about everyone. It serves to remind him of his childhood as well as the fact that he's had an immense passion for football ever since the day he could walk, as revealed to El Mundo Magazine.

Mazinho, Thiago's father and World Cup 1994 Winner, once described his son as being "complete." Yet this didn't occur through merely his genes or some magic dust. "The first thing we taught him was that everyone is equal: from the president of the club to the woman who cleans the restrooms of the stadium. And that if he wants something, he'll have it with effort. He has suffered a lot. He left home at 14 to achieve his dream, and although he's made it, he has a long road left to walk. We help him, but he has to carve out his own future," explains Valeria Alcántara, mother of Thiago, to El Mundo Magazine.

Moreover, Thiago grew up in three different countries (Italy, Brazil and of course, Spain) and was constantly on the move. "They call me Willy Fogg," he once told FIFA in an interview, with a grin. "I'm lucky enough to have experienced so many things which make you grow as a person. The worst part [of moving around so much] is that you're always leaving loved ones behind."

Thiago Alcántara's quality and potential has never been alien to FC Barcelona fans. He was talked up as being the "Next Xavi." Not that anyone can truly replace Xavi, but Thiago was supposedly as close as it could get, albeit more direct in style. The midfield playmaker, once described as the human epitome of Barcelona's La Masia academy was sold to Bayern Munich in 2013 after not getting enough opportunities to play. Yet he's unlucky to have been out of the limelight in the last couple of years or so with injury after injury. Indeed, it's no coincidence that Thiago was much missed by Spain in last year's World Cup as well as by Bayern in key matches such as the ones against Real Madrid last season. Some of Thiago's highlights can be seen here while his highlights against Porto in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final can be watched here. As for those interested in the tactical analysis of Thiago's recent brilliant comeback campaign, read this.

In truth, Thiago is one of the best passers around and his ability to control a game is truly special. In Marti Perarnau's words, "He is a magnet." So much so that many have argued he's the Scholes, Pirlo or Xavi of his generation. Rob Draper from The Mail writes: "Gary Neville has spoken about how Paul Scholes was once among that small group of players who could dictate a game simply with the tempo and the accuracy of their passing. Andrea Pirlo and Xavi are two more from Scholes' generation. Thiago is now elevating himself to their level."

Thiago's display against Porto less than a fortnight ago was an absolute masterclass; Porto simply had no answers. It was the complete midfield performance. It had it all; exquisite passing, control, flair, immaculate touches, won headers, tackles, interceptions, a goal and an assist.  Yet most evident was his hunger, pressing and intensity. He had an aim of reaching the Champions League semi-finals and nothing would get in his way. David Cartlidge of FourFourTwo tweeted "If there is one thing that stands out in Thiago's game above everything, it's his desire to have the ball. Great hunger to control his team."

Similarly, Lee Roden tweeted: "If he's fit, you'd have Thiago in your team for any final. Always available for the ball and more often than not does something good with it." He has a point. Thiago's movement is something to behold and controls the game like few can. Furthermore, he combines the Regista and Trequartista roles brilliantly, thus, a somewhat unique combination in world football.

The fascinating part is how quickly he's adapted and become instrumental after a full year out with successive knee ligaments injuries. A remarkable recovery. To any average player, it's an injury that would take months to reach the level Thiago is currently at, even though he still isn't 100% fit. Yet he's no average player. It's quite evident that Bayern Munich are a better team with him in it and that they've missed him. As soon as he went off against Borussia Dortmund last week, they lost control. And who can forget that perfect ‘Elastico'?

Raphael Honigstein, The Guardian's German football expert who has been watching the Bundesliga  for more years than he cares to remember, commented: "Thiago might well be the most technically-gifted central midfielder who has ever played for Bayern." That's some statement considering all the technically-gifted central midfielders who have played for Bayern, including the likes of Manfred Bender, Lothar Matthaus, Mehmet Scholl, Michael Ballack and Stefan Effenberg. More recently, they've had Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Xabi Alonso and Toni Kroos, but they are less technically-gifted, albeit arguably more complete.

Anyone who followed the U-21 European Championship 2013 will know that Thiago was undoubtedly the star of the show. In fact, Isco, Alvaro Morata, Asier Illaramendi and Koke were great too, but Thiago looked every inch the captain and No. 10, even scoring a perfect hat-trick against Italy in the final. He was sensational. Everything from the way he controlled the game, his touch, composure in possession, link-up play, leadership, ability in the final third and making a difference when it truly mattered. He came up with the goods time and time again. Needless to say, if fully-fit, he'll play a vital role in the European Championship 2016.

Yet as scary as it sounds, as with any other player, there is still room for improvement. Above all, he needs to try his best to stay fully-fit. In terms of his play, his passing is at times too risky (especially when playing in a deeper position) and his decision making could be better. For example, he was dispossessed in the latest game against Bayer Leverkusen and this led to the opposition's second goal. This is definitely an aspect of his game that needs improving. Yet he has tried to get rid of the "superficial stuff", as he himself said. Further to this, defensive aspects, especially his reading of the game, concentration and ball-winning leave something to be desired. However, he's always eager to learn and has come leaps and bounds from the young La Masia product struggling to get a game at Barca.

It has to be said, the Pep factor cannot be underestimated. He had confidence in Thiago when others didn't. The famous reply was: "Thiago oder nichts" (Thiago or nobody), when asked in 2013 for potential transfer targets. As Thiago himself put it: "It's an amazing feeling that someone of the calibre of Pep has so much confidence in me. When the best coach in the world calls you, you don't have to think twice." As is stated by the Spanish author Marti Perarnau in his excellent book titled: "Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich," Pep Guardiola not only promoted Thiago through the youth systems at Barcelona, but he propelled him. He had complete confidence in him and just as he is now doing with the likes of Gianluca Gaudino and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, he spent hours and hours honing the rough diamond and 'maestro' that is Thiago. "With Thiago he had focused on defensive concepts," writes Perarnau.

There were all sorts of rumours in certain sections of the media at the time that Manchester United were close to signing Thiago. This is untrue for two reasons. The first is that Thiago really wanted to be reunited with Guardiola. And the second is that Manchester United and David Moyes never really cemented their interest. "The truth is that in no moment did United come to us and talk to us. It came from the press, it was always a lie," said Thiago bluntly.

It can be argued that Thiago is the one that got away because Barcelona have needed another central midfielder for quite some time as well as the fact that a replacement for the legendary Xavi will be needed with him nearing a Barcelona exit. Some would go further by stating that not only did he get away, but the €25 million fee buy-out clause is an absolute steal for someone of his calibre. Others will argue that it is a reasonable price for someone who is relatively unproven. All parties are probably somewhat culpable, with some being so more than others, especially the board, Zubizarreta and the then President, Sandro Rosell. The managers could have played him more and Thiago could have been more patient, but there is in reality little animosity that can justifiably go Thiago's way. Yes, it hurt to lose someone of Thiago's ability. But at the end of the day, he's a professional with ambitions, and we can't blame him for it. If anything, he should be encouraged.

As Kevin of Barcelona Football Blog once rightly put it: "A modern footballer is no different than any of us. If, in your current job, a competitor found you and offered you more money, status and responsibilities, who wouldn't leap at the chance? That's what Thiago Alcántara did. It's as simple as that. He owes Barça nothing. The club gave him his start, fostered his talent, built him as a player and in exchange, the club got goals, passes, victories and reaped the fruits of his labors. Done. Fair trade."

On the one hand, Barcelona will justifiably argue that Thiago wasn't needed at the time he was let go, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas being preferred. Even now Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, Xavi, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto have the position covered. This brings me to something interesting that I recently heard on BeIN Sport. Phil Schoen, the lead commentator, stated that in many ways, Barcelona got rid of Thiago in order to make space for Messi 2.0. It's a fascinating argument. Perhaps Barcelona thought that it rendered Thiago surplus to requirement, especially with Messi's future natural inclinations to play in a slightly deeper role with greater emphasis on distribution and with the central midfield positions covered. It's a fair point, yet in reality, there isn't much of an overlap between the two, especially with Thiago becoming more adept at defensive aspects with experience and maturity. Further to this, there will be a need for a top midfielder in the near future, with Paul Pogba, Marco Veratti, Miralem Pjanic, Ander Herrera and Koke having been rumoured as possible transfer targets in 2016.

Many feel (on the face of it, me included) that Ilkay Gundogan would be a perfect fit. Yet he was injured for about 2 years, isn't playing anywhere near his best and therefore has a major question mark hanging over him. And with so many teams after him, it is unclear just where he'll end up. The good news for those who want him is that the serious talks ongoing between Barcelona and Dortmund for the same player are promising, as revealed last week by Barca Blaugranes. The not so good news is that he's sought by many others and wants to leave this summer. Equally, Veratti would be a fantastic coup at a reasonable price. Miralem Pjanic is another one who would probably take it like a duck to water and it is understood that his relationship with Luis Enrique is excellent; since, of course, they were both at Roma not too long ago. He recently told La Repubblica via El Mundo Deportivo, "Luis Enrique is, together with Rudi Garcia, the person who has taught me most."

On the other hand, some will have preferred to have Thiago, a pearl of La Masia, to gradually replace Xavi's excellence, but for one reason or another, as aforementioned, it simply didn't happen. In any case, there is little doubt that Barcelona's thinking, whether rightly or wrongly, was more short-term rather than a long-term one. And this definitely contributes to the millions and millions that will soon be spent on a midfielder. Yet the money only hints at the issue. The player that will be brought in won't be a La Masia product, won't have spent years and years in honing and developing for the role and most certainly won't have spent hours and hours learning from the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi first-hand.

In the meantime, Juventus are reported to have accepted an €80 million offer from PSG for Paul Pogba. Ariedo Braida, Barcelona's sporting director, has recently stated that Barcelona have held talks with Juventus and are "sowing the seeds." So if, and it's a big if, Barcelona spend approximately an absolutely excessive €80 million for Paul Pogba (Catalan newspaper Sport have already reported a bid despite Bartomeu stating that there are at the moment no plans to sign him) and he ends being like a fish out of water, then there's a problem. And not to mention his proposed extortionate wages (Barcelona have reportedly guaranteed that Pogba, when it comes to the salary that can be offered, will only be second to Messi, within the wage structure at the Camp Nou).

There are a lot of players that arguably got away. For me, Thiago's the one that got away. At the end of the day it's a matter of personal opinion. Indeed, everyone will have their own opinion. For some it will be Cesc Fabregas. For others it will be Alexis Sanchez, Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto'o, David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or even Giovanni Dos Santos. I doubt Dmytro Chygrynskiy or Keirrison will be high on anyone's list, but you never know!

Having said that, it's easy to say that Thiago's the one who got away without saying if he would be a guaranteed (or at least a regular) starter were he still a Barcelona player. Indeed, anyone could do so. Therefore, yes, it's difficult to displace both Iniesta and Xavi on a regular basis and Rakitic is an absolute workhorse. But there is a clear need for a midfielder in the not so distant future. Sure, Thiago won't be that midfielder, yet the mistake nonetheless lies in not playing him more while he was at Barcelona (even though the competition was fierce and he was occasionally injured). In contrast, Pep's system is to a certain extent designed specifically with Thiago in mind and the great faith he has in him cannot be understated.

Johan Cruyff spoke a lot of sense about Thiago just prior to him leaving for Bayern. "If he really has little chance to play, then he has to go. It all depends on Barcelona's plans. However, if Barca tell him that he will be a starter, he should stay put. It's all quite simple really," said the Dutchman.

So what will the future hold? Only time will tell. It's great to see that both Barcelona and Thiago are doing great.  It is not beyond the realms of probability that Thiago will one day return to Barcelona simply because anything can happen in football. As for the tie itself, Barcelona are surely favourites with the form they are in, especially having taken into account Bayern's injury-crisis. Having said that, the worst thing would be to discount Bayern Munich and become complacent. With Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Franck Ribéry all out, expect Pep to pack the midfield and play tiki-taka for some parts (even though he hates it, as revealed in Pep Confidential), but mixed with a more direct and fluid element at different phases of the game. Equally, expect Pep to learn from previous mistakes by exploiting the width in the same manner as they did against Porto in the second leg, with the likes of Lahm, Juan Bernat and Rafinha providing punch with crosses into the penalty area. If the attacking transition is smooth, in theory, this works on three levels: To attempt to score from the crosses first-time, to try to score from the rebounds and crucially, to free up space for Thiago and Mario Götze. I'm nonetheless confident that Barcelona will just about scrape through (hopefully it will be a lot more comfortable than that!), yet don't be too surprised if Thiago Alcántara ends up making a noticeable impact in this tie as well as in years to come. Here's hoping for many great memories ahead.

"Football is what makes me happy," Thiago once told Reuters."Whenever I play, I forget everything around me and even myself. I need football around me, that's what makes things complete."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Barca Blaugranes Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Barca news from Barca Blaugranes