Thiago Alcântara fidgets uncomfortably in his chair.
It’s late March 2015 and there’s a camera in the young man’s face. It’s been a long time since Thiago played football, which means it’s been a long time since he last spoke to a lens; the unfamiliar experience of the interview is probably slightly uncomfortable for him. When he was playing regularly – well over a year ago now – encounters like this were second nature.
He’s agonisingly close to a return. The thought causes his composure to crack and a characteristic grin darts across his face for a split-second.
Physically, Thiago is changed from the man who signed for Bayern Munich in 2013. The midfielder now has an ugly scar painted on this inside of his leg for his troubles, and he’ll probably never be as agile as he was before the injury.
But it’s on an emotional level that Thiago has been impacted most; so much so that he’s organised for a documentary to be put together using video clips of his long & arduous recovery.
That’s what he’s shooting for now, sat relaxedly in a chair against a red backdrop with a camera in his face. At a prompt, he begins to speak in his native Spanish.
“Since my birth, everything was football, football, football,” he says. “I wanted to live my life, and that was football.”
“What I want is to be the best at what I set my mind to.”
At 24, he’s not far off.
Fast forward to now and Thiago is back – sort of.
The short documentary he filmed in March – which can be viewed on Thiago’s official facebook page – is a montage of clips of the player undergoing grueling physio sessions whilst a tone-setting Florence & The Machine track warbles on in the background. It might seem a little cheesy; it might seem a little clichéd. It was a film made to showcase Thiago’s emotional strength and willpower, and it does the intended job well.
But behind all the editing and the emotive music, the film leaves you with an overwhelming sense that this is a young man on the rise.
Just as difficulty shapes us as human beings, adversary defines football players. At the age of 24, Thiago Alcântara has faced more battles than most professional athletes do in their entire careers. It may prove to be his greatest strength.
Thiago suffered damage to the ligaments in his knee in March of 2014. What was initially meant to be a six-month recovery spiralled out of control and several serious setbacks meant that he didn’t return to action until April of the following year. It was a long and painful lay-off: he missed Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga title win. More significantly, he missed the World Cup with Spain, of which he almost certainly would have played a part. At the time of writing, he’s injured again; though this time, he’s ensured his fans, he’s unlikely to miss more than a few weeks.
Bayern manager Pep Guardiola will be hoping his crowning jewel is not struck with any more setbacks.
Even in a team stuffed to bursting with world-class players there is a sense that Thiago is the premium midfielder amongst the Bayern Munich squad. No one is a better age – Arturo Vidal is nearing his thirties, Gianluca Gaudino & Joshua Kimmich are still in the infancy of their careers – and had he not missed an entire year with injury Thiago would surely now be at the peak of his powers.
Despite the layoff, maybe he still is.
What we saw from the young Spaniard in his brief return was staggering. He is of the rare breed of player who can effortlessly control the sway of a game, dancing around the pitch like the conductor of some great orchestra. The score goes where Thiago says, the tempo of the music ebbing and flowing with each sweep of his magical right foot. He sees things other players simply can’t, passes that hardly seem to exist; then executes said passes with a nonchalant swagger. In his brief injury-free stretch this season we have witnessed the young midfielder take myriad teams apart with ease – including Arsenal, which he did with aplomb. It’s staggering to think that he’s been out for so long. It’s numbing to think that there could be more to come.
It was at the Under-21 European Championships in 2013 that Thiago truly announced his obvious intentions to steal Europe’s midfield crown. He was blindingly good; directing Spain’s swift and elegant attacks as they took apart everyone they faced. The captains armband seemed to glow around his bicep. He was the best player in the best team.
He was, in every sense, the ultimate Barcelona midfielder.
Why Barcelona failed to see that keeping Thiago Alcântara was akin to buying the best young midfielder in Europe may remain a mystery to all but those involved in letting him go.
Tito Vilanova’s reluctance to hand the Spaniard enough starts in his final season at the club – meaning that his release clause fell from $90million to $25million – cost Barça their most precocious midfield talent and the natural successor to Xavi Hernandez.
To be fair to Barça, they are doing okay without Thiago.
The fact remains, though, that he would still improve their first eleven. The idea that this Barcelona side could be improved at all might seem difficult to comprehend right now (as they systematically tear apart every defence unfortunate enough to stray into their path), but if there is one player who could take their midfield up a level it would probably be Thiago. Is he better than Sergi Roberto or his brother Rafinha? Without a doubt. Is he better than Ivan Rakitic or Arda Turan? Probably, yeah.
Thiago is a perfect blend of the two players that best represented what Pep Guardiola cultivated at the club. If you could take the mind of Xavi Hernandez, the feet of Andres Iniesta and build the perfect footballer, I think the outcome would look a lot like him.
It’s easy to see, then, why Guardiola moved quickest in securing Thiago when he hit the market in the summer of 2013. The player got to return to the man who had guided him from the depths of Barça’s La Masia academy to the first team; whilst the manager got to work with the young, talented embodiment of his ideals. It was an ideal fit.
The master and protégé relationship between the pair extends far beyond the football pitch, too. They share an agent; Pep’s brother Pere.
Pep Guardiola has won the Champions League twice. He’s won the league in Spain on three occasions and in Germany on two. He’s built the best Barcelona side – arguably the best football side – to ever grace the planet. And yet, there’s this odd idea that won’t go away: that Thiago Alcântara might be his best achievement yet.
It’s an odd concept that seems to pale in comparison to the honours that Guardiola’s teams have won, I admit. But what could possibly be more romantic as a coach than instilling in a player the entirety of your ideals? To watch an embodiment of everything you have advocated in football stride around the pitch, playing the game with your mind? To guide that player from obscurity to world-class? Little, I imagine.
There is a sense of destiny about Pep Guardiola & Thiago Alcântara. Everything has fallen into place for these two maestros, past and present, to shape the future of football together.
Of course, there are rumours of Guardiola moving on from Bayern in the very near future, and it’s highly unlikely the German side will make the same mistake as Barça and let their precocious midfield talent leave with their manager. The pair could go their separate ways very soon.
But the fact remains that for the rest of his career Thiago will fly Pep Guardiola’s flag. With every cushioned pass, every twitch of his head he writes the ode of Pep’s legacy. Guardiola has built the best team in the world; there is every chance that we will soon be able to say that he has built the best midfielder, too.
If, of course, Thiago can stay fit.
The fact that his knee injury is a recurring problem is worrying. The history books are littered with young players whose limitless potential was dampened by fitness issues that they never shook off. The idea that Thiago may never be able to ditch the injuries is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
There is hope yet, though. What Thiago’s slightly ego-heavy documentary shows is that this is a young man with a network of loving people behind him; his wife, his mother and his father Mazinho all feature, as does his talented brother Rafinha, still at Barça.
More than that, though, the film demonstrates that Thiago is a man who is not content to simply fail.
“What I want is to be the best at what I set my mind to,” he says. At the moment, his mind is quite clearly set on being the best midfielder in Europe. Right now he probably isn’t. By the end of the year – by the end of the rapidly approaching European Championship’s in France – he may well be.
And so we come full circle.
It’s been easy to forget Thiago Alcântara over the past year. His injury has meant focus has shifted to players like Paul Pogba, Mateo Kovacic & Marco Veratti – perhaps fairly, as they are all supremely talented players in their own right.
But I think Thiago is better.
With time, guidance from Guardiola and a starring role in Spain’s rapidly evolving midfield he has all the tools to make this season the best of his career. When he returns to action in December it’s crucial he picks up where he left off, because the likes of Veratti & Pogba need to be reeled in. But he can do it.
What he wants is to be the best, and he will be.
About the author – Tom Curren
Writer & freelancer. Author & editor of scoutedfootball.com, a website dedicated to comprehensively profiling those whom the mainstream football media might miss.