As if a first-half hat-trick in the final itself didn't make him a stand-out already, Thiago Alcantara headed into the UEFA European under-21 Championships final having already proven himself head and shoulders above most of his peers.
The Spain captain and attacking midfielder used the final to give one final top-drawer showing, netting a perfect treble in the process—header, left foot, right foot.
That last display only served to underline his importance and his quality, and he was certainly the star of the tournament.
Controlling Matches and Spain's Tempo
A clear selling point for winning his place in the Spain side at any level, Thiago proved himself vastly capable of controlling games for his team with consistent, creative passing. The Barcelona midfielder was always available to recycle and retain possession in the middle of the park, but also rarely wasted a pass further forward.
His teammates clearly have the utmost confidence in his ability to distribute the ball well, always looking infield for the No. 10 shirt.
Much of Spain's forward movement goes through him, even with all the other attacking talent in the side.
It's easy to point to training and playing alongside the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and saying that Thiago has the best grounding possible to play in this way, but his style and his ability are his alone. Thiago has the talent and has very much been able to harness it during the tournament, to the great benefit of his antion.
Ability in the Final Third
Only teammates Asier Illarammendi, Koke and Marc Bartra managed to complete a higher percentage of passes than Thiago, considering players who made at least two starts in the tournament.
During the entire Championships he started all five matches, missing just 10 minutes overall, and completed 93 percent of his 424 attempted passes—stunning accuracy and consistency for a young, attacking player in a high-pressure environment.
Then again, he isn't the captain for nothing.
Two key passes each game on average showed his creative side as he was a key figure for his nation keeping the pressure up in the opposition's territory, and Spain's 12 goals in their five matches were an indication of the attacking prowess the squad as a whole contained. There can be no doubt that Thiago was a big part of that from his advanced central role.
And, of course, on the biggest stage of all, Thiago put three goals past the Italians to fire his side to glory.
Leadership and Making a Difference When it Matters
It's all well and good wearing the captain's armband, but Thiago showed he could inspire his players by his own example on the pitch. Not just in scoring or creating chances, but in showing a very professional approach, by working hard and with his sheer consistency.
It takes nerves to take a penalty in a final, even if it was for the hat-trick, but maybe it takes even more composure to pass up the opportunity to score a fourth goal in the final and let another player take the second spot-kick, just in case the goalkeeper has figured out the initial taker's approach.
Thiago performed magnificently on the ball but his work-rate off of it and his willingness to help his side dominate make him a good leader at this level.
Like all great captains, as well, he came up with the quality when his team needed it and no matter what he goes on to achieve, it's not likely he'll forget a European Championships final hat-trick in a hurry.
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