There are several things that strike you on meeting Thiago Alcantara: he fixes eye contact and does not waver as he talks; he speaks perfect English despite only having studied the language a little at school – and he clearly knows his own mind.
Thiago will only talk about what he wants to talk about but when he does he is an engaging, thoughtful character and someone who knows his value and worth. For example, there is no doubt that the seeds of his departure from Bayern Munich were sown on his last appearance playing in England – when he was left out of the starting line-up for the Champions League group tie away to Tottenham Hotspur last October which ended in a memorable 7-2 victory for the Germans.
Thiago came on at half-time – with the score only 2-1 to the visitors – and was outstanding but his pride was hurt and he felt annoyed at not starting such a big game especially as Bayern struggled throughout the remainder of Niko Kovac’s time as head coach before he was replaced by Hansi Flick little over a month later.
After that, it has transpired that in the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by Flick he has been moving towards Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka forming the first-choice pairing in central midfield.
- In Thiago Alcantara, Liverpool have their midfield controller, capable of combining discipline with vision
Even so, Thiago remained important and it did appear he would – aged 29 – be signing a contract extension with Bayern in May before changing his mind and telling the club that he wanted a “new challenge”. The decision is certainly not financially driven but, genuinely, because he felt he had achieved all he could at the German giants.
Thiago could have already played in England more regularly, of course, and it will be bitterly ironic for Manchester United fans that both the midfield play-maker and Gareth Bale are on the move in the same transfer window given their club made efforts to sign them seven years ago.
In 2013, United left it far too late to go for Bale, after Cristiano Ronaldo changed his mind on a return to Old Trafford and signed a new contract at Real Madrid, and despite offering £20 million more than the world-record £85 million paid by the Spanish giants. The deal to Madrid was already done with United not even opening negotiations until after Tottenham Hotspur’s first game of the season – a 1-0 win away to Crystal Palace on August 18.
An even greater mistake was the decision to pull the plug on a deal to sign Thiago from Barcelona that had been put in place by Sir Alex Ferguson before he retired and David Moyes took over. Moyes was unsure about the player, believing he did not know enough about him and preferred to try and sign another Barcelona player he was more familiar with, Cesc Fabregas, which was scuppered partly, it was believed, because he did not want to be seen as a second-choice to Thiago. So, infamously, United eventually signed Marouane Fellaini from Everton.
United had expressed some interest in Thiago again during this window – just as they were asked whether they would like to bring in Bale – but the smart money was always on a move to Liverpool and not least because of Klopp’s deep admiration for the Spain international. That admiration is mutual and it clearly smoothed negotiations.
There were clues to Thiago’s destination when Telegraph Sport interviewed him last September. Having played for Barcelona and Bayern he suggested that the Premier League was “a little step ahead” of the other leagues including those in Germany, Spain and Italy.
Unlike a lot of other players he did not ascribe this to the cliché that English football is just faster and more physical. “No, because here [in Germany] as well it’s fast and physical. It’s maybe that the quality of the players they have there is better than in the Bundesliga,” Thiago said. He is now one of those players.
Also, a Champions League last-16 defeat to Liverpool the previous season had left an impression on Thiago with Jurgen Klopp’s side destroying Bayern in Munich. After that, and despite dominating domestically, Thiago felt the season was already over.
“When you lose in the last-16 it is more ‘okay, this season... it goes to the trash’”, He said. “Because you are supposed to be there to fight to the end.”
Bayern did fight to the end last season, winning the Champions League, which has given Thiago the perfect, complete ending to his career at the club. What is also noteworthy about this deal is how seamless it has been. There has not been an ongoing saga – despite all the talk coming out of Bayern – and while Liverpool may have continually denied it was in train no-one really believed them. Bayern suspected that personal terms were agreed some time ago and also knew they did not want Thiago to run down the final year of his contract and leave for free. They needed a fee even if it is far less than would have been realised under different circumstances.
So who have Liverpool bought? For a start they are bringing in the man-of-the-match from that Champions League Final victory over Paris Saint-Germain and a player who exudes confidence. “I am [confident],” Thiago said in that interview with Telegraph Sport last year. “In the end it is work. It is work to be more intelligent, to think faster than your opponent and think faster than I thought last year.” That will excite Liverpool fans along with the determination he has to succeed at Anfield.