“Yaaaaaa!” Bayern Munich’s #6 ran away in celebration, only to turn on a dime and sprint straight towards his goalkeeper. Manuel Neuer obliged the Spaniard’s ecstatic celebration by embracing him; however, he struggled to hold Thiago Alcântara as the midfielder surprisingly leaped up like a child into a father’s loving arms. There was surely a bit of childish elation coursing through the body of Thiago, who had just come back from a torn knee ligament injury that sidelined him for over a year. The DFB Pokal shootout against Leverkusen wasn’t his comeback match (that occurred four days prior), but it was the first time that he felt free again; free from the shackles of pain, loneliness, and anxiety.
In the Footsteps of Greatness
While playing in Brazil, his homeland, Mazinho was largely used as a left-back. However, for many onlookers, you could see his flashes of brilliance going forward. When the Brazilian international moved his career to Italy and then Spain, with a brief stint back in Brazil in between, Mazinho warped into a midfield maestro. Watching the grainy highlights of his 80’s and 90’s matches will give you a sense of just how much of a crime it was to play Iomar do Nascimento as a defender; his first touch and vision for a pass were simply beautiful for any fan of football to experience. Many of his wonderful traits are the same ones exuded by his son, Thiago.
When you watch Thiago Alcântara in his current role at Bayern Munich, you see a refined, cultured 26-year-old midfield playmaker: one who is comfortable in seemingly every aspect of football. It’s very different from the Thiago that popped up on the Barcelona scene in 2009, making his debut for the La Liga giants after a stellar Barça B career. Back then, Thiago was a flashy dribbler who was terrifying for opposition defenders. He still is, no doubt, but the former UEFA European U-21 Championship Winner has added immeasurable skills to his arsenal.
In his youth, Thiago’s life was a shadow of his father’s. Born in San Pietro Vernotico, Italy, where his father was playing football at the time, Thiago was exposed to his first slice of European culture. It wasn’t long, however, until he moved to Brazil and joined Flamengo’s youth system. At the age of 5, Thiago joined Spanish club Ureca (near Mazinho’s new club, Celta Vigo). He didn’t stay for long; his father once again moved, this time to fellow Spanish club Elche. Thiago joined nearby club Kelme for about a year before, ever on the move, he joined back with Flamengo in Brazil.
In 2005, Thiago finally settled in at Barcelona’s academy. This was clearly the end of the road for his youth career movements, as Barça offered a huge platform for the Spanish/Brazilian dual-national youngster to make his mark on the global stage. In 2007, Thiago Alcântara do Nascimento accepted a call-up to the Spanish Under-16’s squad, cementing his status as a future Spanish international.
“Thiago was injured for a year, which was a real shame. We’ve missed a big talent and big personality. He plays without fear, no matter where I put him. We’re delighted that he’s back on board and can play.” Pep Guardiola was full of superlatives for Thiago who, near the end of the 2014/15 season made his debut following over a year of recovering from an injury, 371 days to be exact. Watching Thiago play now may convince you that he’s never doubted his ability as a footballer, but when he suffered through a year-long recovery process, the future of Thiago’s career was in major doubt.
In a football climate charged with overwhelming media scrutiny, fans constantly putting pressure on players, and clubs always looking out for their finances, it’s difficult to suffer an injury and not question your future. Thiago Alcântara is no exception. “Sleep. Sleep was the only thing that comforted me,” the Spanish playmaker confessed in 371, a mini-documentary series focused on the recovery process that Thiago endured after his shocking 2014 injury.
There was clearly a lot of stress on everyone surrounding him, especially the player himself. “I was afraid, not to feel happy,” Thiago’s wife, Júlia Vigas, recalled, “That whatever we did, whatever you said, he was not happy.” It is clear that the agony of watching Bayern take on opponents from the couch was something that the club’s star midfielder found hard to take. As a former footballer, Mazinho knew exactly what his son was dealing with. “His head was turning in a way I could understand perfectly, but I did not share,” said the former Brazilian international. It’s never easy to watch your teammates work hard and feel like you’re not contributing in any way.
A Renewed Form of Excellence
“I’d say he really came into his own this year.” Juan Pablo González is a writer for a popular Bayern Munich blog, Bayern Central. He wasn’t quite enthralled with Bayern’s performance last season but is optimistic for next season. In Juan Pablo’s eyes, Thiago was a bright spot in the team last season. “He’s always been a good passer of the ball but he became much better in the defensive phase,” he told me. This viewpoint is certainly correct; Thiago made more interceptions (4.6) per match than any other player did in Europe’s top five leagues, per WhoScored.
Up to this point, I’ve barely even touched on Thiago’s defensive abilities. He’s certainly a more attacking player in general but he’s proven himself worthy of being called one of Europe’s most well-rounded players last season. While his interceptions sky-rocketed by over 3 per match, his tackling rose steadily from 2.5 (15/16) to 2.8 (16/17). While these changes are probably partially due to Thiago’s role changing under Carlo Ancelloti, it also shows how Bayern’s Spanish maestro has become more confident while his team is defending.
This increased ability to defend has stylistically bled into his on-the-ball performance as well. “The best way to describe him,” González notes, “is that he organizes play efficiently. He can win the ball, look up, start the build up and create a chance.” In Bayern’s thrilling 4-5 victory over a zippy RB Leipzig side, Thiago perfectly exemplified his well-rounded demeanor. He dropped deep to aid the away side’s defensive efforts by pressuring attackers, stepping in for tackles, and positioning himself for crucial interceptions. Thiago would begin the transition from defense to offense after Bayern won the ball, sometimes even positioning himself as deep as between the two centre-backs and spraying a pass wide.
As always though, Mr. Alcantâra’s greatest efforts were in the final third. The prototypical ‘pass before the assist’ player, Thiago would lurk outside the box like a jaguar waiting to pounce on its prey. Once he got the ball, it was quickly distributed to a player in space. Best of all on the day was his set piece awareness; not only did he score a headed goal following a corner, but Thiago constantly threatened Leipzig’s defense with smart, quickly taken free kicks and short passing moves that resulted in one of Bayern’s five goals.
Thiago’s six goals and five assists in the Bundesliga’s most recent campaign were both records of his. Perhaps even more impressively, his tally of 2 goals and 3 assists helped Bayern Munich reach the Champions League quarter-finals, although a tie against Real Madrid ensured that Die Bayern left the competition earlier than many would’ve hoped.
More imperative to his game than anything, Thiago’s passing has become so expert that he can now be mentioned among Özil, Iniesta, Verratti, and David Silva as some of the world’s top dispensers of the ball. Having attempted the second-most passes per game in Europe’s top five leagues at an impressive rate of 90.2%, Thiago has shown just why Pep Guardiola brought him into Bayern as a midfield focal point. While his key passes aren’t quite as high as other Bundesliga midfielders (1.8 per match), this has to be mostly down to the fact that Bayern Munich possesses so much attacking talent.
Thiago is, as previously stated, more of a link-up man than an assist man. That being said, the 5-1 win over Arsenal in the Champions League Round of 16 First Leg was a spectacle of a purely playmaking Thiago Alcântara. With Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal behind to protect him, the Spaniard was free to roam forward from his more sustainable deep-lying role. What occurred was a 10 out of 10 man-of-the-match performance by Thiago that included two goals and an assist, as well as completing 92% of his passes, per WhoScored. Thiago can be an all-around midfielder if need be, but his technical prowess in the final third is what makes him world class.
A Dormant Composer
“I don’t have that much [hope] left,” pouted James McNicolas, football writer for Bleacher Report and Gunnerblog, on the Talking Tactics podcast last month when asked about a player once touted as Arsenal’s next star. “Jack Wilshere excited me more than any teenager I’d ever seen,” said James when asked about the midfielder, “At 16-years-old, he was unlike any English player that I’d watched.” A career plagued with long-term injuries has stalled Wilshere from developing into the player many thought he’d be and a loan spell at Bournemouth didn’t help his case. Injuries can turn a great player into a simple afterthought in a matter of a couple years.
Thiago is now far from an afterthought, but many Bayern fans are still wary of his injury history. This, along with the fact that at the age of 26 he probably hasn’t quite hit his prime yet compiles to a general sense that Thiago isn’t the player that he could yet become. Often times we see composed passers of the ball, ala fellow former Barcelona player Xavi, not quite peak until later in their careers. Thiago doesn’t much rely on acceleration on the ball like some other good dribblers; he uses his quick thinking and vision of the pitch to beat his opponents. He isn’t as gifted in the pass as Xavi was during his Barça days, but Thiago’s defensive ability and overall athleticism makes him a dynamic and versatile playmaker.
Thiago’s versatility is quite useful to a team like Bayern. Having been brought up in a Barcelona system that praises the intricacies of the great Johan Cruijff’s footballing visions, he was used to the necessity of tactical awareness and being able to move around the pitch to cover for elsewhere-pressing comrades. You can see how Ancelotti has shifted Thiago’s starting role in the midfield throughout the season and, in the previously mentioned bouts against Arsenal and RB Leipzig, how his movements over the pitch differ from game to game. Not only is he capable of playing across the deeper, central, and attacking midfield spectrum, but he’s naturally proficient in all three roles.
‘Mia San Mia’, and Who We will Be
Bayern’s Bavarian saying of ‘Mia San Mia’, or ‘We are who we are’ in English, really exemplifies the history, success, and overall (deserved) arrogance of a club as gigantic as the German Champions. However, sometimes an observant eye must be cast towards the future, especially in a footballing atmosphere as competitive and risky as the modern game is.
Bayern’s two most expensive summer signings thus far, Corentin Tolisso and James Rodríguez, both typically occupy midfield positions. Tolisso is seen by most as a successor to the recently retired Alonso, but James looks to be in competition with Thiago. Unless Ancelotti decides to shift Rodríguez out wide, possibly to rotate with the aging Franck Ribéry or Arjen Robben, then it’s possible that the two playmakers end up dueling it out for the starting position. With everything that we’ve covered, could it be beneficial to move Thiago to a deeper position on a more permanent basis? A midfield of Thiago, Tolisso/Vidal, and Rodríguez would certainly be exciting to watch, and would surely be defensively solid when Vidal covers the back line.
After struggling through the pain and near-hopelessness of a yearlong injury, Thiago is back on the lips of football fans when they list the world’s top midfielders. Bayern is clearly on an upward trajectory and could be challenging for a European title with all of the recently acquired talent. Thiago is the main man in the midfield, but an injury can strike at any moment that would likely see him lose his place in the side. As he enters his prime, every step taken is either one towards failure or one towards legendary status.
Watch ‘371’, the mini-documentary series on Thiago’s injury recovery on Youtube here.
Featured image provided by sportal.de.