As Thiago Alcantara’s time at Bayern Munich creeps toward the midpoint of its third season, there is a feeling—finally—that the Spaniard is emerging as the elite central-midfield talent most projected him as when breaking through at Barcelona as an 18-year-old.
After accruing just over 100 senior appearances for the Catalan club, and in the process making a name for himself as one of the foremost, prodigious talents on the continent, he defected to Bayern Munich for a fractional price due to Barca’s gross mismanagement of the supposed Xavi heir apparent.
In that final season at the Camp Nou (2012-13), Tito Vilanova failed to award him enough starts to prevent his release clause dropping from €90 million to a meagre €25 million; a rare opportunity presented itself to grab a pre-eminent talent for a cut-price fee, and after a squabble, Bayern won the battle.
The summer in which things at Barcelona became tangled was the same summer Spain won the 2013 Under-21 European Championship, with Thiago, captain and prime playmaker, leading his team to victory and scoring a hat-trick in the final.
That squad was stacked with talent—they mauled all in their path, particularly Italy in the final—but two individuals stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first was Isco, who would win a move to Real Madrid weeks later following a jinking, technically stunning performance; and the second was Thiago, whose commanding role at the heart of La Furia Roja’s midfield genuinely made football look easy.
After Manchester United’s failed pursuit of his signature that summer—David De Gea even going so far as writing “see you in Manchester” on Thiago’s signed hat-trick ball from the final in attempt to sway him—Bayern happily welcomed him to his new home. Pep Guardiola, of course, was instrumental in the decision; the former Barca boss, newly instated in Munich, had appreciated Thiago’s talents far more than Vilanova and Jordi Roura had.
But injury struck, ruling him out for long spells and disrupting his rapid progress. Days after returning from a serious knee ailment, he reinjured the same ligaments and was condemned to another spell on the sidelines. Despite closing in on 30 months in Germany, he’s only just breached the 50-appearance mark for the club.
But if Bayern’s demolition of Arsenal proved anything on Tuesday night, it’s not only that the German giants are a rather ferocious beast once poked, but that Thiago is now fulfilling that promise. He’s not just an up-and-coming talent anymore; he’s fully capable of dictating and controlling games against some of Europe’s best sides.
He is the anatomy of the technically perfect midfielder—now that he’s put his injury troubles firmly in the rear-view mirror. Bayern sold Bastian Schweinsteiger this summer not just because of his declining fitness/performances, but because Thiago was ready to grasp the mantle.
With Xabi Alonso holding the fort, Thiago is allowed to express himself. The Barcelona academy product has clear traces of La Masia DNA in his game, with his ease in possession and remarkable comfort on the ball in tight spaces leading to extremely efficient games.
His natural slightness and agility allow him the ability to skip into space and past a marker; he’s not forced to pass his way out of trouble, he can slalom and dribble, too. In that sense, he’s got Marco Verratti’s attribute of being able to dribble and jink his way out of deep positions. Even when cornered or pressed on the edge of his own box, you can feel confident Thiago will drift out of trouble and spark an attack.
His passing accuracy (91.7 percent in the Bundesliga this season, per WhoScored.com) and ridiculous range make assists and clear-cut chances created an organic by-product of his game. He’s been one of the best players in the UEFA Champions League so far this season, garnering four assists in four games.
His fleet-footed, silky-smooth style makes him a joy to watch. Guardiola’s 2009 Barcelona side were a jaw-dropping sight, fizzing the ball about with outrageous accuracy and incisiveness, and Thiago looks—at times—to be cut from that same cloth. His all-conquering performance against Arsenal speaks volumes of his enhanced responsibility in this Bayern side.
“When Xavi does hang up his boots, it will be a time of wonderful reflection. However, at the same time Spain will be looking for the player who can proudly take the torch from the fabled midfielder,” B/R’s Tre’ Atkinson wrote in 2013. “That player is former teammate Thiago Alcantara.”
Barcelona were grooming Thiago as their next midfield controller—no doubts are held regarding that. But a quirk in his contract, forcing his release clause down to a basement rate due to a criminal lack of appearances, has robbed the Calatan club of the heir apparent.
Ironically, the 2012-13 season in which he was under-utilised was the one in which Xavi’s game began to decline ever so slightly. That’s not to tarnish one of the greatest midfielders ever to have played the game, but the opportunity to rotate Thiago in on a 50/50 basis and have him learn even more closely from the legend was there.
He’s the one who got away.
Now, he’s reaching a level of performance that makes him one of the most valuable central midfielders on the planet. He can dictate, control, set the tempo, create, assist and score. He’s not accustomed to finding the back of the net in the same way Paul Pogba is, but he can contribute and is comfortable staring down the goalkeeper’s sights.
Thiago is the man Bayern are building around, and rightly so. He is the anatomy of the perfect 2015 central midfielder, and there’s no coach better-placed on this planet to continue his rise to stardom than Guardiola.