Thiago Alcântara, commonly known as just Thiago, is regarded as one of the most talented young players in world football, and is seen as Xavi’s heir by many Barcelona fans.
He was born in Italy, but grew up in Spain and Brazil. His father is former footballer Mazinho, who was part of Brazil’s World Cup winning squad in 1994. His younger brother Rafael Alcântara – better known as Rafinha – also plays for Barcelona. As if that is not enough their cousin Rodrigo is also a professional footballer, currently playing his trade for SL Benfica in Portugal.
After retiring from a footballing career that saw him playing for various clubs in Italy and Spain as well his native Brazil, Mazinho took his family with him back to Spain to settle down, and young Thiago started playing for Galician club Ureca de Vigo. It did not take long for him to attract attention from bigger clubs, and in 2005 the 14 year old became a member of Barcelona’s famous youth system, La Masia. After spending the first years progressing through the youth teams he got promoted to Barcelona’s B team in the 2008/09 season, where he played 25 games followed up by 18 the following season.
His first team debut came 17 May 2009, replacing Eidur Gudjohnsen in a 2-1 loss away against Mallorca. Still, as promising as he was, he had to wait some time for his breakthrough. In the 2010/11 season he was promoted to the first team, featuring in the match day squad for 23 out of 38 La Liga games. Even though he only started six of those games it signaled how much faith coach Pep Guardiola had in him, particularly when considering the competition for places and the standards they have become used to at the club. It is also just one example of how much faith the club puts in their youngsters.
Those familiar with the history of the Blaugrana will know that identity and fighting for the cause is valued as highly as skill and results, both within the club and amongst their fans. Winning means little if it comes through playing ‘ugly’ football, and the Barcelona team we know today is in many ways the culmination of a process started in the late 1980’s, when Johan Cruijf was appointed as first team coach; a process that has seen the club set a new standard in the footballing world by creating a perfect blend of identity, aesthetics and results.
These ethos are perhaps stronger at Barca than in any other club right now, and it very much affects the players’ nature. Young players are being molded to fit specific roles within their playing system, with heavy emphasis on technical ability and tactical awareness. Thiago is no exception to this.
In the 2011/12 season he got his definite breakthrough. During the summer he was an integral part of the Spanish U21 team who won the European Championship, and before the new league campaign had even kicked off he was given his debut for the senior team, in a friendly game against Italy. During the following season he featured in a total of 45 games for his club – 27 of those in La Liga – and established himself as one of the top prospects in Europe.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
The first word that popped up in my head the first time I saw this guy play was ‘swagger’. It is one of my favourite words in the English language (partly because the Norwegian language do not have a good and proper translation for it), and it is definitely the best word you could use if you had to sum him up using just one. There are many technically brilliant players out there, and the Barca squad is loaded with them, but Thiago sticks out in the way he carries himself on the pitch: Head up, posture like a ballet dancer, flair, impeccable first touch and with some of that 360 degree vision we have come to expect from a Barca midfielder. In terms of pure and natural talent, there are not many better than him within their ranks.
His role in the team is as one of the two midfielders ahead of the defensive midfielder. He sometimes plays as the deeper of the two (when Xavi is out), but is perhaps better suited to the more attacking minded role (usually occupied by Iniesta), and has often demonstrated a willingness to make runs into the penalty area as well as good timing in terms of when to pick his moments to go forward.
Still, his main strengths are his superb ball control, technique and composure. He can bring the ball down in just about any situation, never gets stressed, and usually plays the right pass. Like most La Masia graduates he has no problem receiving the ball under pressure, as his combination of ability, composure and awareness of his surroundings means he rarely loses the ball. He also has the ability to do the unexpected, which makes him able to destabilise the opposition and instigate attacking moves from seemingly innocuous situations. This is something which separates him from the rest of Barca’s midfielders; his style is more adventurous than the more calculated minds of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas.
As with many other technical players, his weakness lies in the physical side of the game. He is not particularly big, strong or quick, and although he makes up for it through sheer footballing ability the question mark revolves around how he would cope playing a different type of football, in a different midfield setup. Even though he has decent body strength and good balance, and also has the Barca work ethic ingrained, I doubt we will see clubs deploying a two man midfield playing a more direct style of football being after his signature any time soon. If so, it would probably be in a no.10 role, operating at the apex of the midfield. To be fair though, this has more to do with the type of player he is than it being a weakness.
(as of January 7th 2013)
Thiago has appeared in a total of 9 league games for Barcelona this season, the Catalan giants have won all of those games. He has primarily appeared as a substitute. Most of his appearances have lasted barely 20 minutes with his highest being 83 that he managed against Real Valladolid. He did however experience a fair amount of game time in the opening 2 games of the season. Nevertheless he has achieved an impressive 94% pass completion rate. This is of course now expected of a Barcelona player.
The game against Getafe on the opening weekend of the 2013 La Liga campaign is arguably his best performance so far this season. He managed almost an hour of game time and controlled the midfield with incredible ease. He was subbed off as Lionel Messi came on to replace him. Below is an illustration of his passing in that game.
As can be seen, much of the youngsters passing was done in the opponents half with a couple of attacking balls but mostly passes to keep the game flowing. He barely found himself with the ball in his own half as Barcelona dominated.
He is already competing at the highest possible level; playing in one of Europe’s top leagues, for one of the biggest clubs in the world and arguably the best team the world has ever witnessed – meaning the chances of him leaving to fight for trophies and fulfill his ambitions elsewhere are rather slim. He is highly regarded among both coaching staff and fans, and unless he gets plagued by injuries he looks destined to become a mainstay in Barcelona’s midfield for years to come.
The only reason why I can see him wanting to leave is if he becomes impatient and gets his head turned by a huge paycheck and promise of first team football week in week out, like when Yaya Toure left for Manchester City. The competition for places is fierce, and with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas ahead of him, plus the emerging Sergi Roberto, nothing can be taken for granted.
This article was written by Christer Eikrem. You can follow him on twitter @ChristerEikrem.
UPDATE: Thiago Alcantara has joined Bayern Munich.
Special mention to Squawka.com for granting permission to use their data. Featured image from bleacherreport.com