Are Barcelona ready for a change of guard in midfield?
Barcelona’s inconsistent form in last season’s Champions League—culminating in their resounding defeat to Bayern Munich—had many supporters singing the swan song for aging players in the squad, including midfield anchor Xavi.
Young, clever and full of skill, Thiago began breaking into the first-team ranks in the 2010-2011 season. With a strong string of league appearances toward the end of the campaign, he is the most obvious long-term option to take a place in midfield alongside Andres Iniesta.
But Tito Vilanova won’t be ready to give Thiago the starting spot just yet.
Unfortunately for Thiago, Xavi, the player he’s most likely to replace, is still going strong despite the critics’ complaints. His two dominant Confederations Cup performances suggest that Xavi will still be the go-to man for Vilanova in the coming season.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s tactics require some adjustment when Thiago fills in for Xavi, and the squad may not be ready to make those adjustments permanent. Thiago is a bit more dynamic and unpredictable on the dribble, but he remains less reliable in possession than his elderly counterpart (recall his late giveaway against Malaga in the Copa del Rey first leg), making him a slightly weaker link between defense and attack.
If Thiago won’t be taking over for Xavi quite yet, maybe he can play alongside him? Iniesta, after all, was often used in an advanced role in seasons past. But Vilanova seems to have realized that Iniesta’s dominance in the middle of the park is too precious to waste. And with Neymar set to join the left side of the attack in the fall, Iniesta’s place in the center is likely to be cemented for years to come.
Should Fabregas bid farewell to the Camp Nou, Thiago will certainly move up in the midfield pecking order. But Fabregas has been rejuvenated by Spain’s Confederations Cup bid, and Vilanova may think twice about whatever sale was previously on the table. Despite failing to score—missing a simple chance against Nigeria in the process—Fabregas has been at his former best in an attacking midfield role, combining brilliantly with his Barcelona teammates in the attacking third.
If Thiago stays, his stature in Barcelona’s midfield will continue to grow, surely, but if he’s looking for a permanent starting role, he will find it a frustrating season indeed.