The story of Pep Guardiola’s interest in bringing Thiago Alcántara to Bayern Munich in 2013 is a quite well-known one. Asked in one of his first few press conferences about his transfer targets and who he’d be looking to sign to bolster the squad of the German giants, he issued a strong statement. “Thiago oder nichts,” he said he’d told the board. It was to be him, or no one.
There was no surprise that he wanted his fellow Spaniard to join him at his new club. Thiago represented a perfect fit for the style that Guardiola would be looking to implement at Bayern. Pep was the man who gave him his Barcelona debut in 2009, using the remainder of his extremely successful years there to gradually mould the gifted La Masia prospect into a regular first-team squad member. At a time when Barça undoubtedly had the best midfield trio in world football, they also had one of the best young talents at their disposal too – and the most natural replacement for an ageing Xavi that they could possibly have hoped for.
What was a shock, was that Thiago was even available for Bayern to go after in the first place. Terms in the player’s contract, though, centred on not starting a certain amount of games in the 2012/13 season, meant that his release clause dropped considerably. Teams naturally sniffed around. In swooped Bayern. And the rest, as they say, is history. He wasn’t entirely convinced about leaving the club and country where he grew up, as he’s since publicly acknowledged, but the lure of linking up with his old mentor again proved too much for Thiago to resist.
Almost four years have passed since then. Guardiola’s spell at Bayern has been and gone, and a lot has changed within the football world. Yet Barça’s midfield issue still hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it’s developed from a concern at the back of their mind into a lingering headache that won’t go away no matter what they do. Thiago, meanwhile, has been having the season of his career, confirming his position as one of the most gifted players – let alone midfielders – in the world. How his old side could do with him now.
Some arguments can be made for Robert Lewandowski and a couple of RB Leipzig players as well, but the Spain international has probably been the Bundesliga’s best performer this year. At the very least, he’s without question proved to be the most important member of Carlo Ancelotti’s squad. He’s the individual who’s kept it all together in the midfield, constantly moving and taking up new positions to ensure everything he’s involved in runs as smoothly as possible. Maybe Bayern haven’t been quite as electric this campaign as they were under Guardiola, but Thiago has been on another level.
His importance with the ball is reflected in the high number of passes he makes. The Italian trio of Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Jorginho are the only ones in the top five European leagues who’ve found their teammates with passes more often than he has, 101.1 times per 90 (up from 86.8 last season) with a 90.4% completion rate in the league, showing how willing he is to demand possession and take the initiative. He is, in the nicest possible sense of the term, a control freak; playing a huge role in retaining the ball and manipulating where Bayern move on the pitch.
Typically he isn’t the one who sits deepest to receive off the centre-backs in the build-up phase, that duty falling more to Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal in this Bayern side. Instead he takes up slightly more advanced, staggered central positions to then get it after the initial ball progression has been achieved. Despite that, the superb line-splitting capabilities that Bayern’s defenders have means he does still drift around when they have the ball to try and offer them a more vertical route through the centre of the field.
When the full-backs end up holding possession, Thiago shifts over to the ball-side of the pitch to provide support for them. It’s a movement pattern that he regularly makes in higher zones of the field with the wingers too, as well as just in deeper parts of the midfield, by subtly roaming into the half-spaces to initiate overloads. That usually ends up having one of two effects. Either he’s left unmarked to then take the ball infield, or he’s tracked and that opens space elsewhere that (if utilised properly) someone can exploit. It makes opponents choose if they’re willing to follow him. He creates a problem; forces a decision.
As well as the retention and progression side of things, his creativity when he goes into the final third has also proved to be key. Not necessarily so much when it comes to shots (1.4 per 90) or key passes (1.9) – although it must be said that those league figures, and his five goals and five assists in 2186 minutes of Bundesliga and Champions League football, are still respectable returns for a player like him.
Instead, it’s more simply in his ability to constantly play on the half-turn, receive the ball in space between the lines and instigate one-twos with his teammates in tight areas. He glides around the pitch. His passes are slick and precise. He loves a good disguised touch, or body feint. Mixing the smooth distribution with that kind of mobility and awareness is a truly graceful combination.
Or rather, graceful but deadly. Allow him time and he’ll inevitably pick out the perfect ball. Try to close him down? He’ll dance through the challenge and use his quick feet to get himself out of trouble. It’s almost addictive to watch. Stylistically, at least, he’s reminiscent of a hybrid of the best features of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. Maybe an easy comparison to make, given his background, but a genuine one all the same. You can tell he grew up in the same team as them.
The wide skillset of Thiago is one that makes him comfortable in all areas of the midfield. Therefore, whether dropping a little deeper to help initiate the build-up phase or finding gaps to receive between the lines in the final third, he’s able – and happily allowed – to do it. At a time where shape and tactical unity is proving to be prioritised so heavily, it’s rare that a player is afforded that much freedom to influence play in so many phases. Only special talents like he, Verratti and Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić can do that without it being to the detriment of the rest of the team.
Focusing on what a player of his ilk does in possession is, naturally, understandable. Doing so exclusively as most do though would be a huge disservice to the other side of his game; and what Thiago does off the ball is a very heavily underrated feature of him as an individual. For possession-based sides like Bayern who aim to keep opponents deep inside their own half of the field, a player that can counter-press as intelligently as the Spaniard can is vital to reinforcing their style.
He’s their best asset in that regard, helping them to force turnovers in advanced positions on so many occasions. It not only prevents attacks against Bayern when they’d otherwise be at their most vulnerable, but also gives his own side an opportunity to then attack their opponents while they’re undergoing transitions between the defence and offence phases.
Much like with his passing, the main beauty of it isn’t in the numbers – yet the sheer quantity of defensive actions he makes is simultaneously quite outstanding as well. Nobody in Europe’s main leagues has averaged more interceptions (4.5 per 90) this season than he has, while the 2.8 tackles he successfully manages is similarly a relatively high figure. Add them together and compare it to all those who’ve played more than 1,000 minutes, and his figures are within the top ten of everyone. Seventh, to be precise.
There’s no direct correlation between quantity and a player’s quality (not that the latter should be doubted in this case) when it comes to assessing defensive figures like this, especially because a team’s style of play has a big impact on the numbers, but what it predominantly shows is just how busy Thiago is without possession. In the most controlled, calm and elegant way possible, he’s all-action. Very, very few players perfect that balance. He’s one of them.
Life at Bayern hasn’t always been as simple for Thiago as it is at the moment. Not due to ability or anything, just bad luck with injuries. He’s already made 18 league starts this season, almost more than the 21 he managed in his first three years at Bayern combined. But now that he’s managing to play week in, week out, we’re seeing one of the most gifted and most stylish players in the world doing what he does best on a consistent basis. Long may it continue.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).