Player of the Season: Thiago Alcántara
The first doubters appeared when Pep Guardiola had just announced his departure from FC Bayern. Would Thiago, signed on Pep’s request, follow his mentor to Manchester? At least it looked like an invisible bond connects the then 26-year-old and the Catalonian tactical master. One, that seemed unbreakable ever since Guardiola’s legendary “Thiago or nothing” press conference.
Despite all the speculations of the media the elusive midfielder stayed in Munich and was determined to prove all the people wrong who only saw him glow in Guardiola’s shadow.
Thiago is the new system
With the signing of Carlo Ancelotti Bayern decided against a dedicated tactical manager. After some players had missed warmth and security under Guardiola as the Catalan often worked distant and meticulous, with the arrival of the Italian there should be a human side at Säbener Straße again.
In the first season under Ancelotti tactically a lot of things stayed the same, but somehow nearly everything was new. The maestro brought a 4-3-3 system with him in which he tried to fit in Thomas Müller over the course of the whole season.
The extreme positional play, the backbone of Bayern’s play in Guardiola’s reign, was dissolved. More frequently the record champion took a break in the build-up and even dropped deeper against Bundesliga teams trying to win the ball back in not perfectly coordinated pressing.
The whole season was set to be shaped by moments of individual class. Instead of stabilising and supporting players through a tactical brace, Ancelotti decided to give everyone a bit more freedom. Thiago established himself as the regulator in midfield who took over the game.
After three seasons where Thiago suffered continous set-backs due to long-term injuries and not being able to reach his full potential, he finally managed to avoid injury issues last season. Consequently, he played more than 2,000 minutes in the Bundesliga for the first time. Overall he had 41 appearances in all competitions.
Home anywhere in midfield
The Spaniard played every position in the midfield triangle. Against Leipzig he had a brilliant game as a central attacking midfielder and Thomas Müller replacement and if Alonso got a rest, Thiago put in a shift in the defensive midfielder spot. Mostly he played as a central midfielder in front of Alonso and next to Vidal.
In central midfield all of the young Spaniard’s talents come to light. If one would try to create the perfect midfielder, one would end up close to the “La Masia” graduate.
The 5’9 tall Thiago – like many other youth players from Barça’s academy – posseses a low centre of gravity, which allows him to turn around very quickly. His lightning-fast body feints shortly after receiving the ball coupled with a swift turn have made several Bundesliga opponents miss in the past season.
Here his outstanding feel for opening spaces definitely help him. After most of his turns, the ball not further away from his foot than a hair’s breadth, he has an open field in front of him.
Not many players know how to use this space like the Spaniard does. In the past Bundesliga season Thiago played 1.8 key passes per game on average. However, he also understands to draw out the defence with dribbling and laying it off in the last second to one of his teammates.
His fantastic passing ability benefits him in that aspect. The 26-year-old plays the most passes in the whole league – 95 passes per game. Second in this statistic is Javi Martínez with “only” 78 passes per game. Bayern’s midfield engine is extremely accurate, too. 90.2% of his passes reach their target. This sees him in the top 5 of the league. On top of that, the Italian-born Spaniard plays the most long balls of all outfield players.
A weapon against the ball
Thiago’s impressive skills against the ball have been mentioned on this blog a few times before. Together with Vidal he’s formed one of the most dangerous duos when the opponent has possession. It’s not a coincidence, that the Spaniard has the most interceptions (4.6 per game) in the top five leagues.
His timing is superb. It seemed like he simply knew when his opponent is going to have a slightly lose touch and steal the ball with a nimble move.
The allround abilities of Thiago aren’t just visible for viewers, they’re verifiable through statistics as well. He tops his elite numbers for a midfielder with career bests in league goals – namely six, more than all of his previous Bayern seasons put together – and assists.
Highlights in March
Thiago ignited a true firework of incredible performances earlier this year. Starting with a brace in the round of sixteen first leg against Arsenal mid February, the midfield conductor took off.
In three Bundesliga games against Cologne, Frankfurt and Gladbach he played ten key passes, completed nine successful take-ons and intercepted 28 balls from the opponent.
In said month Thiago honed his newest weapon out of his seemingly infinite arsenal: the chipped pass over the opponent’s defensive line. As seen against Gladbach and several other times in the past season.
Sharp acceleration, a parallel run to the box, a look in the direction of the potentially open teammate followed by a slight twist of the ankle. This pass slices every defence, no matter how compact it might be. When Lewandowski recently complained about the lack of support from his team in the Polish media, he couldn’t possibly be talking about Thiago.
Room for improvement
The Spaniard was a joy to watch for the whole season. Frequently he was the only reason to watch the – at times – dull Bayern games – what would Thiago pull off today? Of all things, that there is certainly room for improvement was shown in the most important games of the season.
In previous years Thiago was stamped a player who turns up on the big stage. One who can shine against Arsenal but on a rainy day in Ingolstadt he’d lack courage and leisure.
And while the 26-year-old dramatically improved his performances in the Bundesliga, he disappeared in the quarter-final against Real Madrid. The strong central midfield from Madrid consisting of Modric and Kroos didn’t allow Thiago any space to unleash his creativity.
Especially in the first leg after Martínez was sent off, Thiago looked overwhelmed. He couldn’t take over the game against the world-class duo Modric and Kroos on his own. He had to witness how the game went past him with Real ultimately winning 2-1.
This is surely not the end of Thiago’s path at Bayern, instead it’s the start. After the retirement of Alonso his job will be taking control of Bayern’s midfield and being the counterpart to Vidal. More than ever.
The motivation for Thiago to return to the Bernabeau to prove himself should be huge. After the comeback win against Leipzig he posted a picture on social media with the caption “It’s not over until we say it’s over”. To go with the motto: Thiago and FC Bayern – it’s not over yet.
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I disagree with the suggestion that Thiago was ever a “big game” player. Even before the Madrid games (in which he wasn’t even the fourth best midfielder on the pitch), he had disappeared at Camp Nou, the Calderon (both times), and in Turin. He even struggled against Arsenal this season until Koscielny was fortuitously injured in the first leg and sent off in the second. He consistently seems overwhelmed and confused against world class counterparts. It puzzles me how his fans give him so much praise for his individual stats while assigning him no blame for the unimaginative, turgid play that he orchestrated. A true maestro is judged by the performance of his orchestra, and this was the worst Bayern has played in several years.
Thiago the magnificent player and knowing that alonso will be no more there,am looking forward to see him enjoying every game