Charles Onwuakpa analyses Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, and how one can pick-up the traits exhibited by him.
“Thiago or nothing.”
– Pep Guardiola
This statement was famously made during a press conference in the summer of 2013: Guardiola had recently been appointed as Bayern Munich’s coach and was keen to point out the Spanish midfielder as a non-negotiable target in the transfer window.
Thiago eventually joined the German side that summer and has since developed into one of the best midfielders in Europe: now aged 29, the former Barcelona academy graduate has been in fine form since Hansi Flick’s appointment back in November.
As he’s currently in his prime in terms of athleticism and experience, a case study can help us understand why he’s so valuable for club and country, as well as highlight aspects of his game than can be taught to younger players who aspire to reach similar performance levels.
The central midfielder is a very demanding role from a physical point of view: the amount of ground to cover generally depends on the amount of players used and the structure of the midfield, but anyone who desires to play here needs to have high endurance levels and good mobility, which are qualities that Thiago possesses.
While there are some limitations in his game due to his size, especially his height (he’s 172 cm tall), he showcases a fair amount of strength in ground duels and isn’t afraid of challenging bigger opponents.
Thiago is a versatile midfielder: he mainly played as a number 8 during his first three seasons with Bayern, then enjoyed a successful spell as a number 10 in 2016/17 and has gradually evolved into an excellent 6 (either alone or in a duo).
Thiago ticks all the boxes required to play as a deep-lying playmaker in modern football: first of all, he always scans the field before asking for the ball and is constantly aware of where his nearest opponent is.
Scanning is a fundamental process in football, especially when a player is receiving with his back facing the opposition: Thiago has successfully combined this aspect with his excellent technique to create one of the most recognizable signature moves in the game.
Most times, Thiago’s first touch is essentially a dribble that creates separation from his marker and makes it easier for him to play the ball forward; he also alternates these flicks with shoulder drops (basically allowing the ball to roll past him without touching it) and quick sprints as well as close-control dribbling in congested zones, which can be followed up by a carry if he has enough time and space to run with the ball.
His incredible press-resistance discourages opponents from committing challenges and instead forces them to protect space: in this situations, Thiago can showcase his fantastic passing range.
Thiago is a progressive distributor of the ball and can play all types of passes: line-breaking ground passes, through balls and diagonal balls. He can set a high or low tempo with his passing and play quick combinations in tight spaces: his bravery on the ball is also matched by a very high accuracy, which ranks him in the elite tier of passers.
Despite most of his activities taking place in the middle third, he can occasionally venture forwards and attack the box (ideally through combination play), showcasing a certain composure in front of goal. He’s also good at taking direct or indirect set-pieces too.
Thiago is also very active in the defensive phase: Bayern’s possession-based football requires good counter-pressing schemes to apply sustained attacking pressure with the ball, therefore his role is crucial during transitions; while he can be frequently overrun when fast opponents are carrying the ball, especially as a lone 6, he’s very good at intercepting passes and recovering the ball in a midfield duo.
Most times, he is the one tasked to step out of the second line and apply pressure on the opposition’s central midfielders, either if Bayern are defending with a mid block or a structured high press: as mentioned earlier, he willingly attempts challenges but always tries not to foul, often preferring standing tackles due to his short legs.
All of these amazing qualities were at display in the first leg of Bayern’s Champions League tie with Chelsea, which was also his best game so far this season (a detailed film breakdown of that individual performance can be found here).
Thiago is one of the best midfielders in modern football not only because of the all-round nature of his game and how good he is at executing the tasks he’s assigned with, but also due to his vocal presence and leadership, both in the dressing room and on the pitch.
With a contract set to expire next season and discussions going on for a potential renewal, it will be interesting to see if the Spanish midfield maestro will decide to spend the latter years of his career in Germany or perhaps seek for a new challenge elsewhere.