On the 14th of July, 2013 tragic news hit Barcelona. Thiago left Futbol club Barcelona. “My decision to join Bayern was wonderful. I got the impression at Barça that they didn’t believe in me.” Sunderland manager Gus Poyet expressed his opinion on the matter on Catalan TV saying: “When I heard about a possible move away, I couldn’t believe it – I never thought it would actually happen. I see Thiago as the replacement for Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. He is someone who could make history at the club.”
He was one of the diamonds of La Masia integrated into the first team by Guardiola. Since his professional debut, apt similitude between Thiago and Iniesta has been made. The manner in which Thiago controlled games with flair, intricate passing and spatial movements was reminiscent of the way Iniesta effortlessly dominated games in his prime. Thiago’s gamestyle however isn’t an exact replica of the veteran playmaker but was always going to be christened the ‘Next Xavi/Iniesta’, as a la masia graduate which is often detrimental for the development of young players.
Thiago had been under the Bayern radar for sometime now, in the summer of 2011, Juup Heynckes, after Thiago had scored twice against Bayern in the Audi Cup predicted Thiago was going to be one of the future stars of world football.
In a team where controlling the tempo of the game is the dictum, midfield dominance is key. In the summer when Pep Guardiola said in an interview: ”It is either Thiago or no-one,” It spoke volumes of his unequivocal potential.
“Ballmagnete” was the chant that diffused from some sections of the Allianz Arena after Bayern Munich’s 5-0 humbling of Frankfurt according to German papers. Bayern mastered 72% possession of the ball, and guess who was the brain behind that masterclass? Thiago Alcantara.
The Spaniard in his first Bundesliga season had set two records that epitomizes Pep Guardiola’s footballing philosophy. Thiago recorded the most touches(177) of the ball, averagely almost two touches per minute, while also making the most passes in a single game in Bundesliga history. Against Entracht Braunschweig in Novemeber, Thiago also had a blockbuster 149 touches of the ball which is third in the all-time list. To put this into more perspective, Thiago’s name appears in the top 3 for most touches of the ball in German football history twice. This coming from a player who has only made 10 appearances in the domestic league.
“In Bayern I changed my style compared to the one I had in Barcelona. Now, I try to assimilate to the style the team has. I am more comfortable and my game can be more relaxed. It’s not that they understand me better, I just play in a different position.” The Italian-born Spaniard is capable of playing several roles. His flexibility is a bonus for Guardiola, as it gives him more options in a packed fixture schedule. Alcantara is often deployed as one of the advanced central midfielders ahead of the pivot, however he started the season playing in the pivot role, in an aim to orchestrate from a deep position.Thiago played at the base of Bayern’s midfield triangle on his debut. What this signaled was a system based on pure midfield control. Under Heynckes, Luis Gustavo and then Javi Martinez played as the anchorman beside Schweinsteiger. One of Guardiola’s first move as Bayern manager was to sell Gustavo, and although injuries hampered Martinez’s start to the season, the Spaniard wasn’t first choice in midfield. When you take a look at both players, their fundamental duty is to break play. The use of Thiago, whose main trait is controlling games in the pivot, however signaled a system fixated on controlling games from a deeper zone. He did a great job instigating attacks versus BVB in the German super-cup, however Thiago looked suspect defensively, which isn’t an abomination for a youngster still learning the role. Positionally, Thiago wasn’t very imposing and often dribbled into Dortmund’s traps.
Since then, Thiago has refined his game, and has been magnificent in the few times he’s played in the holding role. Positionally, he has been outstanding. In build-up phases, Thiago, like whoever his deployed as the pivot is very key for Bayern. He drops into the third centerback role to create a numerical advantage, the fullbacks move higher to form triangles higher up the field. He often makes himself available for a pass with good positioning which explains why he has made the most ball touches per game in European football this season. “He’s not afraid to get the ball, no matter what happens.”- Guardiola.
Thiago indeed offers flexibility to Guardiola in midfield zones. The former Barcelona star is very capable in adapting into different midfield roles, what this offers is tactical flexbility. For example, the Arsenal game at the Emirates. Pep Guardiola noticed Cazorla and Ozil’s poor workrates on the right flank, and so targeted that area. Gotze who had started the game on the left constantly drifted between the lines on the inside right channel, creating attacking overloads with Robben and Lahm on the right wing. Pep could/should have made a change to bring in another winger to occupy Gotze’s previous position; which was the left wing position, but instead Thiago moved to the wings. Upon his signing, Pep Guardiola said in an interview: “Thiago can play as a number 6, 8, 10, 11 and even a number 7”. His malleability provides Pep the option to switch and adjust tactics without having to change the personnel. Matthäus: “Thiago was the puzzle Guardiola was searching. He’s not only a central midfielder,he plays as 6,8 and 10”
Kroos and Lahm are absolutely key for Bayern in terms of what they do but, the Spaniard brings another variation to their game which is more verticality. Against compact blocks, it’s at times difficult to break defense through passing solely. Dribbling is key in destabilizing defenses. In such situations, Thiago is key. Standing at 5’7, Alcantara is very good at dribbling out of tight spaces and playing needle passes.
In Munich, he is no longer living under the tag of ‘the homegrown kid’ or the ‘next Xavi’. The 22 year old is maturing into a truly world class player in Bavaria, putting in impressive shifts week-in week-out in the most dominant team in world football. Although injuries blighted the £21M man’s start to his career in Munich, Thiago has bounced back impressively to claim a starting spot in the star-studded Bayern Munchen outfit, forging a colossus midfield triumvirate with whomever he’s paired with. Earlier in the season, Magath predicted Bayern will have problems with Thiago; To be honest, If Thiago was a problem I wouldn’t mind having freaking loads of problems. Guardiola’s desperation in the summer to get Thiago has proved a masterstroke. Thiago has often been the brain behind Bayern’s midfield dominance, and in a squad where midfield competition is at it’s peak, dropping Thiago wouldn’t cross Pep’s mind.