Jack Heale analyses Lille’s exciting new Brazilian signing, the talented Thiago Maia.
Brazil have a knack for nurturing youthful, creative and inquisitive geniuses who can single-handedly make a misery of their opponents, regardless of their skill-set. However, very few can do so from deep in the midfield like Thiago Maia. Over the years, Brazil have never really found the perfect combination for a pivot in a 4-3-3. They have always been too defensive or too attacking. Thiago Maia’s rapid rise could change that as he redefines the ‘6’ role.
Who is Thiago Maia?
Born on 23rd March 1997, the Brazilian grew up in Boa Vista, within the state of Roraima where his journey would begin. He started at local minnows Extremo Norte and then in 2010 moved to Sao Paulo to rise through their youth side. A year later he made the frowned upon switch to arch-rivals Santos who are renowned for their ability to integrate prospects into their up-and-coming side. In late 2014, Thiago made his first-team debut and in the coming years, he made the position his own, turning out 101 times for the Peixe in all competitions.
His performances have gained him plaudits from all over the globe and especially new Lille manager Marco Biesla. His €14m move under the Argentine’s tutelage adds to the South American contingent within the team and offers Maia a shot at competing in one of Europe’s top leagues. With such talent, Lille may only be a stepping stone for Maia as we are yet to see where his career takes him.
Talent Radar Accolades:
On the international front, Maia has featured for Brazil at U17 and U20 level after a string of promising performances warranted a call-up. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Maia played a significant part in the national team’s triumph by helping them to a gold medal. He is yet to gain a full international cap but a fruitful campaign at the French outfit could pay diligence.
Standing at 1.79cm, a player of that size playing as a holding midfielder may seem unconventional, especially to compete at the highest level. However, that sums up Thiago in a singular word- unconventional, as it is not often we see a pivot who is developing into the complete package.
What is his Style of Play?
The manner in which Thiago glides around the pitch oozes elegance and induces comparisons to a certain Sergio Busquets. He can dictate play from deep, receiving the ball from the backline and distributing it through the lines. He commands the midfield with authority whilst constantly putting his side on the front foot, which is precisely why he is likened to his Spanish counterpart.
At Santos, the two centre backs tend to drift apart to allow Thiago to receive the ball and act as an extra passing option to build from the back. We saw this tactic deployed last season by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Luis Enrique at Barcelona. This allows Santos to dominate possession as there were always options for the goalkeeper, Maia being one of them, and he could then be at the heart of the upcoming attack.
The key difference in the comparison to the Catalan pivot is his defensive duties. Thiago can operate superbly further up the pitch. It is deemed somewhat uncommon for deep-lying midfielders to have an eye for goal, however Maia can unleash a deadly shot that can be utilised from range. This is accompanied by a striker’s instinct when entering the box with impeccably timed runs that often result in goals for his side.
What are his Strengths?
Maia’s strongest trait is his ball retention and comfort on the ball. Brazilian teams are often on the attack and look to press the defensive players when in possession. While some give up the ball, Maia keeps it by using his profound physique and balance to hold off any pressers and keep his team in control.
The 20-year-old also thrives when intercepting and dispossessing his opponents, with an average of 2.7 interceptions per game. His ability to bully opponents off the ball with ease is preposterous; it is a trait that will come in handy during his time at Lille when he has to replicate this against opponents with a greater physical presence.
Another strength commonly used by Maia is his remarkable passing range. From almost any section of the pitch, an inch-perfect through ball can be played varying from splitting the opposition’s defence to simply retaining possession- this is reflected by an 86.6% pass success last season in the respective competitions he played in.
When on the ball, he also has the ability to take on his opponents with fearless dribbles displaying his confidence and belief in his own ability, a characteristic required to make it as a player. Maia successfully completed 1.6 dribbles per game in the league and cup, showing he is adept in both defence and attack.
What are his Weaknesses?
It is certainly saying something that one of his key weaknesses is his inability to use his weaker right side to great effect. Maia often looks rather uncomfortable when using his right foot, with an incorrect technique when striking the ball resulting in his team throwing away possession. It also means he could be viewed as predictable when on the ball as he will more than likely use his left foot rather than the right.
Maia also needs to work on his positioning when playing in the ‘6’ role. An attacking ability is a beneficial asset to have when playing as a pivot but it needs to be used in the right positions, and this is a skill that will come with time for the young talent through the nurturing of his new coach. With no disrespect to the Brasileirão league, Maia is much more likely to be exposed when further up the pitch in Europe with Lille leading to his team being dispossessed, which could prove costly. Therefore, Bielsa must tame this inherent desire to get up the pitch and coach Maia when and when not to press forward, something that will only enhance his game.
It is clear the move to Lille is in the best interest of furthering his career with guaranteed game time and tenacious opposition that will put his talent to the test. Thiago Maia should strive to make the most of this opportunity for his future.
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