Thiago Alcantara was a myth before we ever got to really know him. Pep Guardiola, during a press conference shortly after taking over as Bayern Munich manager in 2013, demanded that the club sign “Thiago or nothing” during that summer. Thiago was bought for just under $30 million, joining a squad the season after they completed a treble under Jupp Heynckes and won the Champions League. In measuring the passage of time by European footballing eras, both he and Guardiola came to Germany during a moment when clubs were obsessed with replicating Spain’s passing and possession style. Seven years later, the 29-year-old midfielder came full circle after leading Bayern to a 1-0 win over PSG in the Champions League Final. It was his line-breaking pass from deep to Joshua Kimmich, taking out six PSG defenders, that started the move for the game’s lone goal.
So why aren’t Bayern showing more fight in keeping Thiago amid rumors of a summer move away from the club? CEO Karl-Heinze Rummenigge practically insisted on his leave, saying that if Thiago wants to try out a new league, he “has to do it now.” Perhaps he glimpsed a still-dominant Bayern side playing without an injured Thiago after this season’s restart, with Joshua Kimmich taking his place in midfield alongside Leon Goreztka. What Hansi Flick’s lineup lost in Thiago’s rhythm and control, they made up for in pressure and pressing that echoed the lineage of that 2013 squad.
It wasn’t enough for Bayern to win in Europe, but to be feared and intimidated. They couldn’t just beat Barcelona in the semifinals, but had to humiliate them with eight goals. Bayern with either Kimmich and Thiago at the midfield base are title-winning sides, just with different methods to attack opponents.
Passing is subtle, but power bludgeons. Thiago was always an outlier in this paradigm. He was dropped into a midfield featuring the physicality and box-to-box energy of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger. It is remarkable how modern Heynckes’ 2013 side looks seven years later, and they remain arguably the most balanced Champions League winner until this 2020 variation when considering attack, defense, and transitions. Even Joachim Low admitted following Germany’s 2018 World Cup failure that he tilted too much towards possession at the expense of a Jurgen Klopp-ian, Red Bull-influenced style focused on pace and power on counters.
That dynamic style makes it easy for the likes of Lothar Mathaus to conclude that Thiago is “replaceable” as opposed to Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, or Kimmich. And if the modern game is about counters and athleticism, where is the place for future Thiago’s? Arsene Wenger observed that soccer was in danger of turning into the NBA, a game centered around athletic ability and transitions at the expense of creators.
There is also an analytical component, with our current statistics measured within the context of goals (Thiago’s most productive season in 2017 resulted in a 0.34 xG + xA). Understanding the value of events that lead up to goal-scoring opportunities requires even further nuance, such as measuring the actions of the player who receives the pass to denote the quality of the initial ball. But then what of players whose actions are outside of a goal paradigm, but centered around controlling tempo and slowing down a match?
Luckily for his narrative, Thiago is also a player for social media with his quick footwork and passing range. Though we do lose context no matter how impressive his individual moments. Vicente del Bosque’s famous quote about watching Sergio Busquets see the game is as relevant to Thiago. And whereas Busquets’ genius is in his simplicity and efficiency, Thiago’s ability is something more impossible and unattainable. Busquets may only be truly appreciated by an experienced eye; Thiago’s footwork is for the masses.
But even with the trophies and virality, are we right to believe that Thiago is still underrated? He’s akin to a critically acclaimed indie movie or classic novel - we’ve heard of him, we’ve heard critics talk glowing about him, but have we really understood? The passes and turns belie his overall control of a match. Guardiola regurgitated numbers when describing his versatility, saying that Thiago could deploy as a 6, 8, 10, 11, or even as a 7 - basically anywhere near the ball.
Considering his ability in possession, it is a mystery why Barcelona were so willing to let him leave. He went to La Masia in 2007 and made 68 senior appearances before moving to Bayern. His departure was easy to overlook with Neymar arriving the same summer. Thiago was at one point seen as the replacement for Xavi, creating the tempo and passing that would carry the club into the next generation. His absence left a hole in the lineup, and even more so in the compounding mistakes in Barcelona attempting to replace the role in the transfer market. Not to say that he would have solved the club’s current existential state, but they are still looking for Xavi’s successor. At the very least, Thiago could have saved the club nine-figures in their midfield search.
Rumors of Thiago signing with Liverpool were surprising considering the physicality of Klopp’s midfield. Maybe it’s best to stop asking questions of why two of the most intense clubs in Europe demand his services and conclude that he has the requisite physicality and athleticism.
Years ago, we wrote obituaries for the #10 role, with that playmaking responsibility assigned to wingers. We’ve recently taken another step, with a side’s creative burden falling further back in the field to fullbacks, with centerbacks now also required to add tempo and passing. We wondered what Liverpool’s midfield trio of Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, and Fabinho actually do, concluding that what they don’t do - turn the ball over - is as essential as their ability to control opposition counter attacks through their physicality and positioning. Similarly, the physical and tactical nature of Kimmich and Goretzka allow the likes of Alphonso Davies to play up the field like a winger or a striker from the left back position.
What becomes of the Thiago role in the future? You could expand that into examining the overall importance of midfielders in the analytics age. Once fundamental truths in the NBA and MLB were overturned through data and re-shaped roster construction, so what if we conclude that midfielders aren’t as valuable as we would like to believe? Regardless, Thiago has at least one supporter in Wayne Rooney, who said that Liverpool signing him would make a bigger impact than Lionel Messi signing for Manchester City. It is an overreaction to say we’ll never see a certain type of player again considering the circular nature of styles and philosophies. But it’s also difficult to push against modernity and efficiency. Thiago’s skillset was already impossible to replicate, and that was before his role disappearing right in front of us.