Thiago Alcantara: A Genius At Work by Tom Underhill
The generation of Spanish midfielders that came to define the 2010s followed a clear physical and technical template. Short in stature, light and diminutive in physique, total unmitigated ball control and an unrelenting greed for the ball. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and David Silva; all possessed these qualities to an elite extent and allowed Spain to build a dominant international side for just shy of a decade.
Younger than these esteemed names, and with lesser international pedigree, is Thiago Alcantara. Born in Italy, to a Brazilian father (Brazil international Mazinho), Thiago would play for Spain through citizenship rather than birth-right. Yet, his rare skillset is strictly Spanish and has reignited an appreciation of the Spanish regista that had come under fire with the fall of the Spanish national team.
Thiago would play intermittently for Barcelona in his early career in Catalonia, making 68 appearances in four seasons, between 2009 and 2013, apparent that he was being groomed for the club’s long-term midfield progression as Iniesta and Xavi aged. He seemed to be a perfect marriage between the two stalwarts; the watertight passing and ball retention of Xavi coupled with the dribbling and ball control of Iniesta.
Yet, the presence of the two alongside Sergio Busquets, as well as Cesc Fabregas, Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita made chances difficult to come by on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, the quality of Barcelona’s side under Pep Guardiola, and the naturality with which Thiago seemed to fit their midfield model, made it a case of waiting out the aforementioned Spaniards for his time to excel and fill their shoes.
Guardiola’s departure at the end of the 2011/12 season derailed the succession plan, and upon taking the Bayern Munich job a season later would make signing the then twenty-three-year-old Spaniard a prerequisite for his first term. With Thiago growing frustrated at the lack of faith placed in him at the Camp Nou, and unsure of when his calling would come, he made his wish to join up with his former boss who was held in high esteem in Catalonia.
It is said that out of respect for Barça, Thiago waited for the clubs to formally negotiate without handing in a transfer request or pushing for the move. Instead, he hoped Guardiola’s word would hold enough sway for the deal to be completed. The deal was finalised for an initial €20 million, and notwithstanding the regard he was held in at the time, such a fee for a young talented central midfielder was markedly low.
At the time, with the legendary Spaniards occupying the three central midfield positions, Thiago was often fielded as a right-winger in rotation with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. The lack of first-team midfield opportunities was similarly felt by Cesc Fabregas, who himself was asked to play on the wing or as the false nine in Guardiola’s system. This was not a case of Barcelona seeing technical deficiencies in Thiago’s game, nor of him being incapable of succeeding Iniesta or Xavi. At twenty-three it was apparent that he was expected to sit and wait, and for a hungry and ambitious player aiming to break into the Spanish national team, Bayern and Guardiola represented the more progressive option.
Xavi would play for Barca for a further two seasons, and Iniesta a further five, perhaps vindicating Thiago’s decision to move to Bavaria.
Ligament injuries in both his ankle and knee would bookend his first season in Germany, making 16 league appearances and contributing two goals and four assists in this time. The latter injury would see him miss 53 games between March 2013 and March 2015, setting the tone for Thiago’s early Bayern career being one of injury-interrupted by playing time. This narrative would soon be rewritten, however, as he set about redefining the central midfield role in Germany.
The pressure was on the Spaniard to become the mainstay of the Bayern midfield, as had been the case in his early Barcelona years. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm would leave in the coming years, and Götze’s Bayern career never developed as many hoped.
Thiago was the most talented of the midfield roster, and his brilliant dribbling style and weight of pass were unique attributes for a midfielder in the Bundesliga. It was just a case of getting him on the pitch, and a four-year contract in 2015 enabled that.
Between his arrival and the end of the 2020 season, Thiago and Bayern won the Bundesliga every year. While these seven seasons would only yield 150 appearances from a possible 238, Thiago’s influence cannot be understated.
Bayern have frequented the 4-2-3-1 most since Thiago’s arrival, as it benefitted the use of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben as inverted goalscoring wingers and allowed Thomas Müller to float close to the striker and play his unique creative role. The use of a midfield pivot also makes the most of Thiago’s particular skillset.
When available, Thiago has featured alongside one of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Arturo Vidal or Joshua Kimmich as part of this pivot. All are strong defensive presences first and foremost, with tight passing ability (if unspectacular), and only Vidal poses as a destructive forward passer. This model of player as a midfield partner allows Thiago to take the ball from his centre-backs or fellow midfielder, and progress it upfield.
His dribble success rate for the past few seasons has been 88.85%. Lionel Messi, heralded as one of the game’s best dribblers, completes dribbles at around 70%. This may be a result of Messi facing up banks of low block defences around the penalty area that brings his completion down, but for Thiago to complete his carries at such a high rate is rare for a central midfielder.
In 2019/20, Kimmich and Thiago both made over 74 passes per game in a Bayern side that initially struggled before establishing a ravenous possession-based system that used the creative forces of their central midfielders to keep the opposition at arm’s length.
Interestingly, despite Kimmich being the more defensive player, he completed seven assists while Thiago did not register an assist all season. Müller’s 21 assists were the league’s highest, yet his role was often as a second-striker who played under half of the passes played by Thiago and Kimmich. Rotating the ball between the full-backs and wingers, the two would use Bayern’s high line to probe and hover centrally before playing the ball into their German creator.
The difference between Kimmich and Thiago is reflected in their key passes and dribbles for the season. Kimmich’s 2.3 key passes per game are considerably higher than Thiago’s 0.8, yet Thiago completes three dribbles to Kimmich’s 0.6. The young German is the more direct player, sitting deeper than Thiago, but rarely looking to carry the ball before feeding it forward. As a converted right-back, Kimmich’s pedigree as a direct offensive option makes him perfect for this role.
Thiago is the superior dribbler and uses his low centre of gravity and unparalleled ball control to weave past an opposition press and exploit the space behind. He also uses his long passing to this effect, relying on the forward runs of left-back Alphonso Davies, and Robert Lewandowski. In the Champions League fixture against Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge, Thiago demonstrated this superbly.
Chelsea’s high defensive-line meant that midfielders Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, could harry and hustle the Bayern pivot. Trying to press a dribbler like Thiago is an undesirable task at best. Yet, his tendency to not even bother carrying and instead pop the ball diagonally for an advancing full-back makes the job a pointless one.
There is a nonchalance to his passing that begs the question of what the human eye is capable of. The weight of the ball, and the arc and dip imposed upon it, are a balance between cunning sorcery and flight engineering. Again in the Champions League, his pass for Serge Gnabry’s third goal against Tottenham arced high and then swooped low for the German to complete his hat-trick. It is worth noting that Thiago was substituted on at half time with the score 2-1. By the time of the final whistle, Bayern had added five goals to that tally, with Thiago toying with the Spurs midfielders in a way which midfields in the Premier League are unaccustomed to.
The StatsBomb graphic above from the previous season demonstrates another side to the diminutive Spaniard’s game.
The expected metrics for a midfielder of his standing are to be seen; high xG Build-up (being involved in the build-up play of an expected goal), incredibly high deep progressions showing his use of the ball from deep to drive the ball forward, and a high pass completion rate.
Perhaps unexpectedly, however, is his exceptional defensive output. 5.6 tackles and interceptions (when adjusted for possession so to give the metric fair context) are the numbers of an out-and-out defensive midfielder. Any higher and you’re looking into the realm of Europe’s elite defensive midfielders; the likes of Fabinho, Casemiro, and Wilfred Ndidi. Denis Zakaria, one of the breakthrough talents in the Bundesliga this past year, makes less than 5.0 combined PAdj T/I. This only goes to reinforce Thiago’s status as a world-class midfielder, and one that can perform numerous functions and roles simultaneously.
Anfield to be Wowed by Thiago?
Hopefully, by now, those that doubted Thiago or maintained a view of him being a luxury hanging from one knee will have been enlightened to his genius. He is adored by the managers he plays under, giving them tactical flexibility in his use as a deep, central, defensive, and even attacking midfielder.
Recent word emanating from Anfield is that another coach is desperate to have him in their team.
When asked about the rumours of Thiago joining Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool this summer, Guardiola spoke of an exceptional talent who would no doubt thrive in the Premier League. Having played for Guardiola at Barcelona and Bayern, Thiago is a player in his image. Small of stature, lightning-quick feet and above all else, a match intelligence that few can match.
Yet it is the Spaniard’s rival, Klopp, who yearns for Thiago. As Champions of England, with a points total, surpassed only once in the competition’s history, Klopp will be keen to add quality without disrupting the playing chemistry.
A player such as Thiago could easily be dropped into Liverpool’s 4-3-3. Central midfield is a position of great depth without having an exceptional creative passer. Fabinho is a brilliant defensive lynchpin, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are tactically very capable and play the role of moving the ball out to the full-backs brilliantly, and both Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain have shown glimpses of their all-action capabilities.
Yet, Liverpool struggle most when their attacking trident is man-marked and not afforded half spaces to run into. Thiago’s hawkeye would help rectify this deficiency.
Klopp’s attack of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are of elite quality, and without them, the side does not function accordingly. However the 2019/20 season showed that Firmino’s patchy goalscoring heaps pressure on the two wingers, especially when his creative powers are marked out of the game. Again, Thiago could help the Brazilian shoulder this burden in offering a creative pass from deep (so deep as to be inside their own half occasionally) and give Klopp the option of resting Firmino and playing Salah and Mane as a strike partnership.
The benefits of playing the likes of Wijnaldum and Henderson are that they understand the system and offer a selfless work ethic that players of greater ability may not. However, a player of Thiago’s talent is rare to come by, and to add him to their ranks would only benefit Klopp’s range of midfield options, and even make better use of those further forward. A midfield of Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Keita is a mouth-watering proposition, and one that improves upon the current midfield.
With Thiago’s contract expiring next summer, a fee of £30 million for a twenty-nine-year-old with an extensive injury record may be viewed with trepidation. Thiago is a unique case, however, with a midfield skill set that is unmatched across the sport.
@TransferChecker has informed @ZICOBALL of news of an official bid from The Reds:
“Liverpool have made their first formal bid for Thiago Alcantara, but it falls slightly short of Bayern’s asking price. The Germans are adamant that they want €30million, and it’s doubtful they will budge. Liverpool are attempting to haggle with opening bids, and with only ten months remaining on the former Barcelona man’s contract, Klopp and company are said to be reluctant to meet Bayern’s evaluation at present. Any plans of a transfer may be kept under wraps as Bayern lay siege on the Champions League; an early exit may move things along quicker.”
Whatever the destination, Bayern will miss Thiago Alcantara, and will need to adjust accordingly without such a technician at the heart of their midfield. Liverpool simply must take the plunge if they want to upgrade their midfield creativity, and though doubts may remain about his age and inhibited knee, betting against this exceptional midfielder to make a mockery of the Premier League seems churlish. Don’t think, just watch him.
Words by Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill
Graphics by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_