Sometimes the smallest gestures say everything. When Thiago Alcântara kneeled to tie his bootlaces during yet another Liverpool passing spell last week, serenely observing the unfolding action as he did so, he was capturing his very footballing identity. It was peak Thiago. By taking a wardrobe break while the ball was in play, he was radiating confidence in three directions at once: in his teammates, in himself, and in his ability to forecast where the ball was moving.
Thiago does not deal in blood and thunder. He deals in silk and crystal. He is no Steven Gerrard, barrelling from box to box, busting a lung and a gut every game in order to slam home 15 goals a season. By contrast, the Spanish midfielder rarely seems to break a sweat. He works hard for his team, make no mistake – his predatory pressing and surgical tackling are a vital part of his job. But his brilliance lies in his peerless economy of energy. His intimate relationship with a football, his deep mastery of its physical behaviour, saves him endless labour and time and worry.
A single dinked touch from Thiago neutralises an onrushing opponent, thus making a crude physical contest unnecessary. A laser-like long pass dismantles an entire opposition defence. A long-range volleyed shot is so exquisitely timed and controlled that it screams into the net despite being struck with no apparent force – the textbook example of this being his recent worldie against Porto.
No wonder three national teams wanted him to pull on their shirt: his country of birth is Italy, his parents' homeland is Brazil, and he spent most of his childhood in Spain. His dad Mazinho, a Brazil midfield general of the 1994-winning side, was not best pleased that his twinkle-toed scion opted for La Roja. Ditto his mother Valeria Alcântara, a former volleyball star and also a Brazil international.
But for an embryonic midfield brainbox who had grown up in Barcelona, watching Xavi Hernandez manipulate games from the centre of midfield, choosing Spain wasn't a hard decision. Spain have since declined as an international force, and Thiago hasn't come close to emulating Xavi on the World Cup stage – partly due to an injury that kept him out of the 2014 finals in Brazil.
All that could change this December. Qatar 2022 offers Thiago, now 31, a glittering chance to complete his personal trophy cabinet, which already bulges with two UEFA Champions League titles and a hatful of La Liga and Bundesliga titles (earned with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively).
And then there is the small matter of Liverpool's absorbing title race with Manchester City, which resumes with a potentially volatile clash with relegation-threatened Everton today. For Thiago, there is a bittersweet edge to this epic struggle: his genius is deeply bound up with the genius of Pep Guardiola, who refined him at Barcelona and Bayern before refining Manchester City.
But under Jurgen Klopp at Anfield, he is playing some of his best football to date, in what is now arguably the greatest generation of Liverpool players, if you believe that sheer weight of talent overrides volume of silverware as the defining measure of greatness. And that is saying something.
This year is Thiago's golden year, in other words. Right now, no other footballer anywhere is quite as good to watch. His stars are aligned, and his bootlaces are tied.
- Catch Liverpool v Everton on Sunday 24 April, SS203 at 5.30pm