Before diving in and waxing lyrical about one of mine (and probably your) favourite footballers, let us all be reminded that Thiago Alcântara cost Bayern Munich just €25m.
And, he joined from none other than Barcelona.
And, he was one of Europe’s brightest young talents at the time.
And, he was billed as the heir apparent to Xavi.
Now, he is one of Europe’s best talents. A silky smooth footballer with perfect technical ability, whose progression to this stage of his career has been a joy to behold.
Arsene Wenger once said ‘If you love to watch football, you love to watch Mesut Ozil’. While there was a point where this could be agreeable, the exact same comment applies to Thiago. And has done for a while.
Coming through the famed Blaugrana youth system, the timing of his emergence couldn’t have been better. The legendary Xavi’s career was entering its twilight stage, and all those in and around the club were waiting with bated breath to see who could replace him.
In many ways he was irreplaceable, but a sprightly young midfielder was working his way up through the ranks and demonstrating all the necessary components needed to at least plug the inevitable gap for a couple of seasons was arriving on the scene.
But while operating as a more traditional box-to-box midfielder, Thiago was never really afforded the chance to shine at Barcelona.
A lack of game time was a decision that prompted his release clause to drop from €90m to a minuscule €25m.
€25m for a fledgeling talent risen out of one of the finest academies in world football? Bargain.
Sure, it doesn’t always work out that simply, but Thiago’s case is noteworthy as one of the undeniable success stories. This is a midfielder who has grown as a player through various tactical and positional alterations, and become of the very best in the world.
Since gracing the Bundesliga, Thiago has offered Bayern – and the division – a welcome bit of flare. Robust, ball-winning central midfielders with engines to match were the common traits of Die Roten central midfielders. Mark van Bommel, Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger attest to that. While gifted in their own right, the signing of the Spaniard brought a different array of traits to the party.
Finding the right position to match his skillset was Pep Guardiola’s first task upon bringing him to Bavaria. Being used in more advanced position during his time at the club brought with it his best goalscoring return in the 2016/17 campaign, but while he’s also played as a number eight, it’s the deeper role where he’s really blossomed. Guardiola knew that, using him as a number six throughout his time in charge.
Natural slightness and his low centre of gravity allow him to skip past markers and feign his way into space. A drop of the shoulder coupled with a nonchalant first touch allows him to burst through gaps, while his exemplary dribbling ability leaves opponents trembling in his wake.
The La Masia DNA is evident, but he’s expanded on that.
Under various managers, his role has altered, but those changes have worked to tweak his game into what it is now. He isn’t just a technical marvel who can weave his way out of tight spots. That’s not even half of it.
Every step of the process that follows has been fine-tuned and perfected at the Allianz Arena, to the point where unearthing any obvious flaws he may have is pretty impossible.
Bridging the gap between defence and attack is where he shines. His role as a deep-lying playmaker relies heavily on intricate, neat passing, and rarely ever does he fail to find a teammate – this season alone he boasts a 91% pass success from open play, coming from a total of 1,723 passes.
Thomas Muller has been outstanding this term, investigating the empty spaces in front of the opponents’ backline from where he can feed the relentless Robert Lewandowski. But those spaces don’t just open up themselves. Muller’s knack of drifting into those positions is unquestionable, yet its Thiago’s incredible passing range, quick midfield bursts and hawk-like vision that allow these spaces to appear in the first place.
With a single touch he can eliminate three players from the game, commanding such a heavy press from the opposition due to his creativity that it allows other members of the squad to profit.
He’s that ‘bit before’, if you’d like.
Which is exactly what a deep-lying playmaker is tasked to do. Initially being groomed into a midfielder who’d control matches by his former employers, their loss was Bayern’s gain as he’s developed into one of the most complete midfielders on the planet.
Whether it’s controlling the tempo of the game, dictating the play, offering creativity, assisting or even scoring, Thiago has done it all at Bayern.
This fleet-footed playmaker has been nothing but sublime throughout that time. Dazzling the division and captivating all those who’re lucky enough to watch him. It’s little wonder why Bayern have won the league title in each of his seven seasons, not to mention the other seven trophies he’s lifted.
Thiago is a player to build a team around. At Barcelona, the team is only built around one player, and Thiago was seen more as a replacement than a focal point. It was to their detriment, as Bayern, and rest of the world has since been blessed with the finest Spaniard the German top flight league has ever seen.
Truth be told, though, those parameters could easily be stretched further.