A quick look at the stats from Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over PSG in the Champions League final underlines everything you need to know about Thiago Alcantara.
Thiago made 85 passes that night in Istanbul, 26 more than the next busiest player. David Alaba was the only Bayern player to start and record a better passing accuracy than the Spain international’s 88.2%. No player on the pitch created more chances, no player on the pitch completed more accurate long passes, no Bayern player completed more dribbles.
But numbers are cold, soulless. Distill Thiago’s qualities down to basic numbers and you reduce the midfielder to a man who neither scores nor assists particularly regularly, rather than the man a newly-appointed Pep Guardiola felt so strongly about he warned Bayern in the summer of 2013: “He is the only player that I want. It will be him or no one.”
Jurgen Klopp could no doubt relate as he watched Thiago dictate the flow of Bayern Champions League final success. According to The Athletic’s transfer expert David Ornstein, Klopp was already keen on signing Thiago but became convinced in the 29-year-old after watching him over a beer with his coaching staff as Bayern matched Liverpool’s six European Cups.
“It underlined the fact that Thiago would be the perfect signing for their team and their club,” Ornstein recently said on his YouTube show Ask Ornstein.
The clues were all there early on for a trademark Thiago performance. Sitting in front of the Bayern defence, he had the time and space to efficiently keep the ball moving and build attacks. Left-back Alphonso Davies proved a popular out ball, which will no doubt have Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold licking their lips at the prospect of being served passes by their new team-mate.
But while ultimately his role is to maintain the functionality of the team, few players have the poise and class to pass the ball so gracefully as Thiago, who may now prove himself the heir to Xabi Alonso‘s throne at Anfield.
Kylian Mbappe and Neymar may not be renowned for their work-rate off the ball, but when PSG’s superstar duo tried to press the Spaniard, they were often left clutching at thin air, not the first nor the last players to be deceived by his textbook first touch and turn.
Occasionally it would fall to Marquinhos to put pressure on Bayern’s pass-master. While a more obvious destructive presence, he struggled to get near Thiago, too.
Perhaps what caught Klopp’s eye most was not the hypnotic technical ability but rather the fight and tenacity in Thiago’s willingness to break up PSG attacks as well as launching Bayern’s. As much as we all love ethereal playmakers, playing in such a role requires Thiago to be, for want of a better phrase, a bit of a dog.
But this is where ability and attitude marry as one. Not only did Thiago snatch the ball away from PSG’s forwards on the edge of the box to bring a halt to any threat from the French outfit, but he then had the nous to ensure it remained in the possession of a Bayern team-mate.
Higher up the field, it also can’t have gone unnoticed by Klopp that Thiago’s favourite victim appeared to be Ander Herrera, a man who relished being Manchester United’s very own terrier before joining PSG.
While lots of his work was done in the Bayern half, that didn’t stop Thiago venturing forward to have some fun closer to PSG’s goal.
And here PSG’s problem was only exacerbated. Being unable to get the ball off Thiago is not too dangerous when he’s closer to his own goal, but when he ventures forward someone needs to at least try.
It’s only then that it becomes apparent that his passing is too crisp, too ahead of the game, to stop. You can try to tackle him, but then his quick feet are only going to make you look like a fool, as Ander Herrera – yes, him again – found out.
Klopp’s Liverpool midfield has proven itself to be a high-class engine in recent years thanks to a brutal efficiency.
With Thiago now among the ranks, we might just see that Liverpool’s engine run even smoother.