Thiago Alcantara, Barcelona’s prized jewel and MVP of last month’s Under-21 European Championship, has joined up with former coach and mentor Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich for a transfer worth €25 million.
Let’s address the question everyone is asking: why would Thiago leave a loaded Barcelona side that he couldn’t break into for a Bayern midfield that is just as deep and talented as the one he left?
It’s no secret Thiago had run out of patience behind Xavi and Iniesta in the Barca pecking order. The Catalans’ acquisition of Neymar made a breakout season for Thiago even less likely. Indeed, the Neymar deal was cited by Guardiola as one of the big reasons why he thought a deal could be possible in the first place.
But what makes Thiago so sure that he can unseat the likes of Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, or newly-acquired Mario Gotze at his new club? Amid the speculation last week, many experts argued that Thiago would get lost in the shuffle in Munich as well, that he would be better off playing a key role at Manchester United.
Let me dispel this argument. Thiago is and has always been Pep Guardiola’s guy. A week ago, Guardiola revealed that Thiago was the only player he’s ever asked for. Not Gotze. Not Wayne Rooney. Not even Robert Lewandowski, who just made the shortlist for UEFA’s Player of the Year award, was ever on Guardiola’s list. “It’s Thiago, or no one,” Guardiola said last week.
Now that he got him, do we really think Guardiola will toss his new toy straight back to the bench?
The Bayern boss, who coached Thiago for four seasons at Barcelona, made his public desire sound more like a demand, like a little child obsessing over his only Christmas wish. “[Thiago] can play three, four, five different positions,” Guardiola said, “I need his qualities in our midfield. I believe he is good for us, not just for me.”
Need. Many people will question whether Bayern really needed to add another high-caliber midfielder. But make no mistake, this is a calculated move by Guardiola, who is diligently working on a new philosophy for the reigning Champions League winners.
The key word here is versatility. Thiago’s offensive qualities make him effective on either wing or in the playmaker role. His tactical and technical know-how make him a more explosive option in holding midfield. With Thiago in the mix, Guardiola now has endless options as he forms his new, more attacking-minded 4-1-4-1 system, which Bayern has utilized this summer in favor of Jupp Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1. With so much talent at his disposal, Guardiola is engineering a midfield machine, made up with interchangeable parts.
One possible scenario sees Bastian Schweinsteiger now move up in midfield, with just one true holding midfielder behind him. That role could now belong to Thiago, who would provide far more danger in that spot than Bayern had last season. Kroos or Gotze could take up the spot next to Schweinsteiger in that setup.
Javi Martinez – Schweinsteiger’s dominant partner in the defensive midfield last year – would then likely be deployed as a center back, which he has played for Athletic Bilbao in the past. Another variation could see Martinez or Schweinsteiger remain as the defensive midfielder, with Thiago occupying a spot in the middle.
Those are just two lineups Guardiola can throw out. In truth, there are a dozen combinations he can, and will, experiment with over the next several weeks. With Kroos, Ribery, Muller, Robben and Gotze, Guardiola has five additional midfielders who can play in multiple positions, even as a “false 9.”
There are obvious losers in this deal – rotation players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Luis Gustavo will be in sour moods this week – and not all of the big names can start the biggest games. But with Bayern taking part in six competitions this year, and injuries always a factor (cough Robben cough), Guardiola will make use of all of his stars.
Not everyone will be happy, of course. It will be up to Guardiola to smartly rotate his players and prevent playing time issues from bubbling over. But the bottom line is this: with Thiago, Bayern are now a more versatile and unpredictable team, even more dangerous than last year’s treble-winning side.