It was probably just a matter of time before the media would get their cameras ready for Thiago’s unveiling at Old Trafford, but as fate were to have it, the fatherly love of Pep Guardiola was enough to lure the young Spanish midfielder away from the grasp of the English giants.
Thiago Alcantara is now a Bayern Munich player, happy and re-united with his mentor. There are a lot of questions and answers that have been doing the rounds in the media and certainly the fans, but at the end of it all, the million dollar question remains, Did Bayern need Thiago?
Many footballing circles have cast their opinion on the move, terming it as a luxury for an already packed midfield, and others have gone to the extremities of accusing the club for trying to hog all the available talent.
Another way of looking at this fairly unexpected move would be the need of variety in the present scenario – Pep’s Barcelona, for all their greatness, were ultimately dethroned due to the absence of a proper ‘Plan-B.’ The addition of Thiago means that Guardiola certainly has a lot of variety on the menu; having an embarrassment of luxuries is a luxury for any manager!
What does Thiago bring to the table?
Having graduated from La Masia, Thiago Alcantara was already declared as the heir to Xavi, a testimony to the supreme talent within the player. Things eventually fell apart for the youngster, and a lack of first team minutes propelled the midfielder to search for a new employer.
Comfortable playing as an advanced play-maker or in the midfield pivot, Thiago’s USP is his ability to pick a pass, acting as a focal point of his team’s attack or initiating a move from the midfield. Add to this, his off the ball work in hounding his opposition into a mistake is also one of the gradually developing aspects of Thiago’s game. Probably, the areas where he lacks substance are his physical strength and his finishing, both of which are not high on the agenda of any player of the same position.
Walking the talk – How can Thiago be utilized?
As mentioned, the addition of Thiago could be termed as a luxury that Bayern could afford but did not need. In the 4-1-4-1 that Guardiola has used in the pre-season and the Super Cup last night, Thiago could slot in as the link between the defense and midfield or play as a conventional midfielder. In the first case, the Spanish play-maker would require defensively sound players ahead of him as seen last night itself. In the latter scenario, Thiago would get more freedom to operate as an attacking play-maker and link up the midfield with the attack.
Even though Pep Guardiola’s systems are possession oriented, the lack of a defensive midfielder who stands ground and shields the back four will expose the defense on more than a few times. At Barcelona, it was Sergio Busquets who acted as a foil to the creativity of the players ahead of him. At Bayern, Pep has a couple of options as his Number 6. With Gustavo seemingly on his way out, Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger are expected to be the two options, the latter being used primarily as a backup.
In the formation above, Javi Martinez plays as the anchor in midfield, with Schweinsteiger playing his preferred box to box role. Thiago plays the role of an attack minded central midfielder, linking up the midfield with the attack. Robben and Ribery on the flanks provide the width, and Mandzukic plays upfront as the lone striker. It is to be noted that the diagram is just an example of the formation; there can obviously be differences in the selection of personnel. For instance, Gotze or Muller could start ahead of Robben. Kroos, who developed an impressive cohesion with Schweinsteiger, could start ahead of Thiago.
In the absence of Martinez, Schweinsteiger could start as the anchor with Kroos and Thiago ahead of him. Though the German International has played as the defensive midfielder in the past most notably under Louis Van Gaal, he has never looked at his best because of his all-round qualities being caged to the confines of protecting the defense. The flipside of using Schweinsteiger as a Defensive midfielder, with the little help from the two midfielders ahead of him, would expose Bayern to high-pressing and counter-attacking systems.
Another possibility would be to start Thiago behind the two central midfielders. As seen last night against Dortmund, Thiago started as the anchor in midfield, operating as the holding midfielder behind Kroos and Muller. Though confident when in possession of the ball, the midfielder left a lot of space in the middle, which was readily exploited by Gundogan & Co.
Will the False 9 come into play?
As mentioned, Pep would have learnt from his past that the lack of a Plan B does indeed turn out to be costly in the long run.At Bayern, the Spanish tactician would do his best to ensure that his team do not become predictable –
Here’s what Guardiola has to say about his systems –
“We can play with real strikers and false nines. It also depends on the physical condition of the players as to which system I will choose.”
The idea of playing Mario Gotze as a False 9 may serve as a healthy change to the more orthodox 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 that Pep has resorted to for large portions of the team’s pre-season. Besides, it may also bring out the best in Thomas Muller, who has been proclaimed as the raudmueter(space-exploiter) for his uncanny ability to manufacture space for himself.
Of-course, a little flirt with the 3 man back-line cannot be ruled out of the picture completely given Pep’s experimentation with the same during his last season at Barcelona. A 3 man central-defense requires a high degree of cohesion among the defenders since there is a fine line separating perfection and blunder. But, the success of a system in a league wherein wing-play is a major source of attacking impetus for many teams remains arguable.
Pep Guardiola has a brimming pool of talent at his disposal, with which he can possibly try out more than a few different permutations and combinations. But along with great power comes great responsibility. With the footballing carnival of Brazil on the horizon, there wouldn’t be many in the Bayern roster who would be wanting to prove their mettle in order to get a seat on the plane to Rio next summer. Could Guardiola satisfy all his players?
An interesting season lies in the waiting for Die Roten.