“Thiago or nobody!” These three words have entered the history books at FC Bayern. They are words that led to one of the best transfers in the history of the club. Thiago Alcántara do Nascimento – or simply Thiago – joined the German record champions in 2013 to work with Pep Guardiola. He would not only change the club’s footballing culture, but also grow as a person in a foreign country with a foreign culture.
He is a promise to the future. A gifted footballer, who perhaps represents the successful concept of “La Masia” at FC Barcelona more faithfully than anyone else. He could have become a worthy successor to Xavi or Iniesta, but then decided to break out of his comfort zone and follow the path to a footballing culture that has its problems with technically gifted footballers. A culture in which, to put it bluntly, only those become heroes who know how to fight – not so much those who are artists on the ball and with every of their touches make the game look effortless. A Bastian Schweinsteiger, for instance, was mostly recognized for his mental strengths rather than his technical abilities. Many remember his bloodstained face in the World Cup final, but less so his strategically clever movements in the Champions League final.
There are prejudices in almost every culture. It seems to be deeply ingrained in the German football culture that artists and smooth ball handlers are fair-weather players who lack the necessary commitment in the game against the ball. Not everyone thinks so, of course. But the problems that many have with players like Thiago conspicuously often sound like this. The Spaniard, however, emphatically managed to persuade many people who thought that way about him at the beginning differently during his time at Bayern. He made sure that this prejudice has disappeared for good from many people’s minds.
But let us start at the beginning: Thiago’s signing has to be considered a great stroke of luck in 2013. At the time, Thiago is yet a player at one of the best clubs in Europe and is blessed with great talent. But there is no place for him in a midfield that is unique in the history of soccer: Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi.
Even though Xavi’s career in particular is already in its twilight, Thiago sees no other way than to move to a new club. For Bayern, this is perfect timing. With Pep Guardiola, a new coach has come to Säbener Straße, who to this day has an incredible appeal for players to work with. This is especially true for Thiago, whom he already knew from their common time at Barcelona. The relationship between the two is very good and so the phrase is coined: “Thiago or nobody!”
To enter the team at the newly crowned treble winners is anything but easy. But the special constellation with Guardiola as his coach gave him a head start. Thiago knew the philosophy of the coach. He quickly became the necessary piece of the puzzle in midfield to implement the coach’s new ideas, despite competition from such players like Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Götze.
Thiago immediately managed to impress as a playmaker and pacemaker in midfield, but then he suffered a serious injury. A syndesmosis ligament rupture led to his being out for about two months. But as soon as he returned, the Spaniard made his first magical appearance: In Dortmund both he and newcomer Götze came on in the final phase of the game. Immediately, the two harmonized as if they had been on the pitch together for years. Within minutes, they raised their team’s game to another level. For the first time since Götze’s arrival the German public is beside itself. Thanks also to Thiago. The two appear like a duo as the world has never seen before.
There was a growing hope that Thiago and Götze could form a dream duo in midfield for years to come. But unfortunately, there were not many more magic collaborations to come. Götze as well as Thiago were struggling with injuries. Thiago tore the inner ligament in his knee the following summer, which saw him miss out on large parts of the 2014/15 season.
Slowly the great hope Thiago embodied gave way to a first wave of criticism. Thiago was too prone to injury to be able to meet the exceptional promise he represented, it was said. In the final year of Guardiola, however, he only missed five competitive matches with another injury. At last, the Spaniard managed to stay fit for a longer period of time. Nevertheless, he would not become an undisputed first team player.
Contrary to many expectations, Arturo Vidal, who was signed at the beginning of the season and is anything but a typical Guardiola player, had about 400 minutes more of competitive game time (3204 in total) than Thiago (2782). Nevertheless, in 2016 even the Kicker, notoriously critical of Thiago, wrote that Thiago had finally found his rhythm. His teammate Douglas Costa described him as “magic”.
Thiago was not, however, the decisive factor in Bayern’s coming as close to a Champions League victory during the 2015/16 season as they had not done since 2013. His important goal against Juventus Turin was followed by a number of matches in which he did not play a major role. In the semi-final against Atlético Madrid, he and a few colleagues allowed Saúl to school them like choir boys before he scored the goal for the 1-0 win, and in the second leg he didn’t play a minute.
His ability to shine in both the offensive and defensive parts of the game and to beat the press, in particular, proved very important for the team in many games, although he had not yet been able to live up to the very high expectations. The media often liked to speak of “unfulfilled promise”.
As a result, the big promise of Thiago in 2013 was not to materialize for the time being. The months he missed at the beginning had too much of an impact. But then Thiago took a giant step forward without his great teacher Guardiola.
Under Carlo Ancelotti it became soon apparent that the team was no longer as flexible and well-versed tactically as in previous years. The deficiencies in positional play grew increasingly larger, as did the susceptibility to individual mistakes.
But this was not because Thiago by now had ascended to a place in the core of the team. On the contrary: Thiago developed a sort of quiet leadership in this phase. He embodied a will to win that the cliché of the “fair-weather footballer” actually does not allow. With his playing intelligence, he made the tactical failures of the coaching team look less serious. Thiago filled many a gap, covered lots of ground, and was the key player in his team’s link-up play. Above all, however, he again and again resolved what seemed like hopeless situations against the opponent’s press in which his teammates were badly positioned.
There was a growing impression that it was not the coach who ultimately lead Bayern to the double, but Thiago. That became even clear whenever he was not on the pitch or when well-organized opponents managed to take him out of the game. The accusation was quickly made that Thiago did not show what he could do in important Champions League games. As is so often the case, however, the arbiters of Thiago’s performance let themselves be misled by the result of the games rather than looking at the actual performance. The thrilling contests with Real Madrid, for instance, have all too often been retrospectively judged too much on the basis of the final results. Bayern simply lacked the tactical quality and cleverness to win in the end, but Thiago proved that he could measure up against two of the best midfielders in the world at that time – Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos.
It is telling that Thiago took the decisive step to world class exactly when the team around him slowly began to diminish after years of dominance. No, Thiago could not be made responsible for the now greater gap to the top teams. On the contrary. Thiago was one of the few reasons why it did not get any bigger even quicker.
At this time, Thiago was the sole lifeline of FC Bayern in a time of transition. A time after a great era. And yet he seemed to serve to many as a scapegoat for the defeats – sometimes based on claims that could hardly be substantiated. For years, Thiago had been one of the squad’s two strongest players in defensive challenges. Nevertheless, he was accused of being too weak defensively. During a game, Thiago always creates magical moments in which he opens up spaces for his teammates that actually do not exist. Nevertheless, critics have always had a tendency to focus on the one mistakes that sometimes creep into his game.
Thiago’s fleetness of foot too often leads to carelessness, they said. They are not entirely wrong. There are those moments when the Spaniard gives the ball away carelessly. But at the time of Ancelotti, only rarely was it mentioned how often he was the only redemption in an otherwise unimaginative game of Bayern and how much his attitude embodied the club’s “mia san mia”.
In 2019, however, even he was not able to save his team any more. Under Kovač he for the first time seems the player that many see in him: Careless and without much influence. Consequently, harsh criticism flares up once again. His stay at the club, with his contract due to expire in 2021, was said to be on the brink of collapse. But Thiago proved his critics wrong once again and showed exactly what many people do not think he is capable of: The supposed “virtues” of German football culture.
After the change of coach to Hansi Flick, he increasingly became one of the most important players in the squad again. Especially against the ball he is in no way inferior to Bayern’s two most outstanding pressing players Goretzka and Müller. At the end of the Bundesliga season, he achieved an average of 2.3 interceptions per 90 minutes (second place in the squad behind Martínez) and 2.3 successful tackles (first place in the squad). During the second half of the season, the Kicker’s title is: “Thiago’s transformation from artist to worker”.
But no, it is not Thiago’s metamorphosis that the magazine claimed to notice. It was a very late realization of what Thiago had been embodying for years: The mixture of elegance, fleetness of foot and indefatigable work ethic on and off the ball. Only when the Spaniard blossomed back to his former strength under Flick, some reporters tried to spin it as though he had undergone a supposed transformation.
Under Flick, Thiago turned into the man for the magic moments again. Perhaps the crisis of the first half of the season was indicative of his importance. If Thiago shone, the whole team shone. When he did not shine, even outstanding players like those of FC Bayern suffered for it – especially if the coach could not put together a tactical alternative net to make up for it.
Under Flick, however, the situation appeared now to become almost paradoxical: On the one hand, he has managed to have players like Lewandowski or Thiago play at their best again. On the other hand, he has simultaneously removed the dependence on them. He has proved able to create a tactical baseline so that every player knows what to do in almost every situation. Flick is obsessed with detail and offers his players solutions even when things get complicated. His baseline not only allows the best players in the squad to show their best performance. It also includes players who then have to replace them. When Thiago injured himself in the second half of the season, Goretzka stepped in and, along with Kimmich, became a guarantee for success.
Maybe that is why the moment has now come that Thiago is in his best form and FC Bayern can still replace him. Nevertheless his quality will be missing. His ability to give the game a special touch and to see spaces that no one else sees, even in the most difficult situations.
Thiago just is the complete player. He is anything but a “fair-weather footballer”. If you want to understand his game and his personality, you will also understand what a bitter loss his departure is for FC Bayern. As a player, everything on the pitch revolves around him. As a person, he does not look for the big stage. The fact that he rarely gives interviews is likely to lead to his strongly distorted perception in the media. But that has never mattered to him nor Bayern.
His video message at the farewell shows that he leaves with a clear conscience. His duty in Munich is done. He has won the Champions League – not as an insignificant part of the squad like once in Barcelona, but as a key player and difference maker. But Bayern will remain in his heart. Few players are as credible as Thiago when he says that, who in recent years has become a figure of identification for many fans because he is more than just a brilliant footballer.
In the future, people in Munich and Germany will often remember the time when this magical football player, with only a small swivel of the body, a drop off the shoulder took out an entire pressing line of the opponent. People will also often remember how Thiago regained balls in midfield and immediately knew how to distribute them. Maybe the change is also a chance for something new. For young players, for Kimmich, for Flick – but, without a doubt, at first it will hurt.
His dribbles, his runs, his positional play, his ability to link up and provide structure to the whole team – Thiago’s game can hardly be described in words, you have to see it. And you have to (want to) let it affect you. Then a football culture will be there for you to discover that has long been absent from this country. A country of toil and labor. But Thiago does not stand for a stark contrast. He has united these two cultures within himself. His magic on the pitch has changed the way many people look at the entire game. At the same time, football in Germany has taken him to the next level as a player. And now he is going to England to continue his evolution as a player even further. It is understandable, but from the perspective of FC Bayern it is also extremely painful. We say: ¡Adiós, Thiago!