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Watching Thiago Alcantara for 90 minutes is one of football’s purest joys

Thiago is one of the last great midfield artists

In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait cameras follow Zinedine Zidane’s every move for 90 minutes of Real Madrid’s 2-1 win against Villarreal.

It ends in Zidane seeing red for his part in a brawl- a fitting forecast of the Frenchman’s final act in football three years later.

Zidane was one of the few midfielders throughout history who could carry an art-house film on the drop of a shoulder and caress of the right foot.


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If you had to pick a midfielder for a similar project these days there would, IMHO, only be one candidate: Thiago Alcantara.

There are better midfielders than the Spanish international born in Italy to Brazilian parents. Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen, Toni Kroos, Marco Verratti and Miralem Pjanic would all probably relegate him to the bench in a World XI side.

There are more effective midfielders. Thiago’s three goals and one assist in all competitions for Bayern this season pale in comparison to Paul Pogba’s haul of 14 goals and nine assists.

But there are none more graceful than Bayern’s ballet dancer.

Always assisting

Reuters
1
Always assisting

Even in an ultra-disciplined Champions League performance against Liverpool there were a few brushstrokes that hinted at a midfield artist who dances to a different beat.

In one such moment he took the ball out of the sky on his chest, despite the fact he was in his own box and under pressure from Mohamed Salah. It was pointlessly nonchalant. No one would have thought thought less of him if he’d opted to volley the ball into row z. But that’s not how Thiago operates.

In another he arrowed a flat pass out to Serge Gnabry who didn’t have to break stride before running at Andrew Robertson. It was one of the few moments in the game when Anfield’s tight, claustrophobic turf became a vast expanse of open greenery.

Then there’s the foot roll which betrays his time spent on futsal courts of Brazil. Thiago had two spells in Flamengo’s academy before moving back to Spain. It’s where he learnt to manipulate space with the sole of his foot- a trait which has stuck with him throughout his professional career.

Thiago dangles the ball tantalisingly close to the defender only to whip it away with the bottom of his foot and into a new pocket of space like a matador playing with a tired bull.

It’s one of the many methods of improvisation Thiago uses to keep the ball alive, the highlight of which was an elastico running away from goal to leave Borussia Dortmund’s Erik Durm and Jakub Blaszczykowski pondering the theory of relativity.

But the 27-year-old is no show pony.

He possesses technique of the highest order, whether passing short and long, controlling the ball or executing an acrobatic volley. His pass to release Franck Ribery in the 88th minute of Bayern’s win over Hamburg in February 2017, for example, was a work of art in itself.

Thiago fizzed the ball from waist height with the perfect amount of spin and swerve, setting Ribery free to assist Joshua Kimmich’s game-winning strike. It was a pass that would have dislocated most midfielders’ hips, but for Thiago it was effortless.

Thiago’s trophy cabinet boasts four Bundesliga trophies, two La Liga titles, seven domestic cup competitions, two FIFA Club World Cups, one UEFA Super Cup and the Champions League, as well as three European Championships with Spain at Under-21 and Under-17 level.

However his senior individual honours are limited to a place in the 2016/17 Bundesliga Team of the Season and a spot in the fifth FIFPro World XI side in both 2015 and 2017. Add to that a relatively sparse return of 31 international caps for Spain and you could accuse Thiago of failing to make the most of his sizeable talents.

But, just as Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting when he was alive, sometimes you don’t appreciate pure genius until it’s hung its boots up.


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