If Manchester United can complete the signing of Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara they will have captured one of European football’s most cavalier young talents – a free spirit whose penchant for trying the unexpected has attracted the interest of United, but also helped persuade Barça to let him go.
It now looks like their decision to set his buyout clause as low as £15m will go down as one of the gaffes of the summer – Barcelona could have raised considerably more after he starred in Spain Under-21s European Championship triumph this month. But the bargain price hints at a nagging doubt shared by certain members of the club’s technical staff, who believe he gives the ball away too much and is slow to win it back. They say he is an anarchist on the pitch.
The observations should not raise too much alarm among United fans as this criticism is a result of him being judged by Barça’s standards. He has been measured against Xavi, who went through one Champions League game last season against Paris Saint-Germain without giving the ball away once.
Similarly, the observation that Thiago can be slow to win it back is true only when applying Barça’s golden rule of regaining possession within seconds of having lost it. Opta stats had him excelling in the Euros at both winning and keeping the ball.
Take away the Barcelona yardsticks and you are left with a wonderful player – one who former Barça coach Pep Guardiola was last night urging his Bayern Munich directors to try to sign having been made aware of Thiago’s decision to leave the Nou Camp.
“I am not going to change my way of playing football,” Thiago said at the start of the 2011-12 season. “It is what has got me where I am today. I just need to polish up certain things and that will happen with time.”
There have not been enough opportunities to do that at Barça. At the Under-21 Championship he stood out playing in the three behind the striker with the support of two holding midfielders behind him. At Barcelona that is a space occupied primarily by Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and now Neymar too. Thiago has to play deeper and, with fewer options to shoot or play the final killer ball, he is more likely to gamble with possession. In the more chaotic environment of the Premier League he will thrive as much as he did in Israel.
As players from that successful Under-21 team returned to Spain this week the man who scored a hat-trick in the final against Italy juggled the match ball signed by his team-mates as he headed to the arrivals lounge. He is more “made in Brazil” than born to play for Barcelona, although he chose Spain over the country his father Mazhino played for 35 times.
“I am who I am thanks to Spain,” Thiago said before making his pledge of allegiance. He is desperate to follow up this season’s success by starring in next summer’s World Cup, but knows he must find a better platform from which to do that than the Barcelona bench.