Despite boasting of a plethora of options to choose from in midfield, Pep Guardiola has frequently found himself in a dilemma when it comes to squad selection, considering injuries and fatigue – Javi Martinez sustained a year long injury before the start of the season, Xabi Alonso has looked out of sorts ever since the winter break, Sebastian Rode isna t consistent enough, and the niggling injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger meat that he no longer has the same impact on field.
Guardiolaa s first choice midfield pairing of Schweinsteiger and Alonso frequently caused more problems than it solved because of both playersa lack of offensive contribution and frequent immobility which was often exploited by pacy counter attacks. An agile ball-playing midfielder capable of controlling the game in the final third was needed.
Enter Thiago AlcA?ntara. After sustaining a ligament tear early last year and missing out on a World Cup berth, he returned just in time for the new season to begin, only to injure himself again and spend more time on the sidelines. His much awaited return against Borussia Dortmund followed by two sublime performances against Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt proved that he is indeed the perfect man for the job.
Here is a reminder of what Thiago AlcA?ntara offers to his team and what makes him so important, especially during the most crucial end of season run:
Perfect balance in the midfield
Bayern Munich have often found themselves fielding two or three of Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Alonso and Rode over the course of the 2014-15 campaign. While all are brilliant in possession and controlling the game, none of them are fearsome players in the opposition half. However, in the last 3 games, Thiago has partnered Alonso and Lahm, allowing him to play a more attacking role. Xabi Alonsoa s new defensive quarterback role further underlines the need of a composed figure pulling the strings further up the park. This ideal balance in midfield may be the crucial factor in the remaining Champions League and DFB-Pokal cup games this season.
Skill on the ball
Ever since Arjen Robbena s injury, there has been a dearth of Bayern players willing to directly take on a defender one-on-one. But, in the 2 games alone in which Thiago started, he completed 11 dribbles and was fouled 4 times in the opposition half. A few further cheeky flicks and one-two passes underline his intention of not merely being a ball player, but also a lethal weapon in the final third. Against Borussia Dortmund, he was once again instrumental in retaining possession during the last 20 minutes, when Bayern were under a lot of pressure as Dortmund pushed for an equaliser. Ever since his Barcelona and Spain U-21 youth days, he was always seen as a player ready to use his trickery to beat a player and provide a perfect balance of direct play and indirect build up.
In the 3 games Thiago featured, he has maintained an overall passing accuracy of 90%, a long ball accuracy of 91% and set up 3 chances with 3 key passes. With equally potent passing players like Lahm and Alonso operating behind him, Guardiola can feel assured of an organized and tidy distribution play from his midfield. Also, players like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the wings often mean the sacrifice of the long ball strategy in favour of wing play, which doesna t play to Thiagoa s strengths. Thiago and Xabi Alonso have found more success in their long balls without the two wingers by looking for the smart movement of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski, both of whom excel at controlling a punt forward. The attacking play through the center, instead of the wings, provides the midfield with more time on the ball a perfectly suiting Thiagoa s style of play.
With all this said, Pep Guardiola certainly realises the Spaniarda s importance to the team and is in the process of building the team around him. However, with midweek fixtures and crucial cup-ties every week, his stamina will be called into question. Spending the better part of two years on the sidelines mean that he has some catching up to do on his fitness and endurance before he leads an injury-ridden Bayern to glory on three fronts.
Now is the time for him to show why exactly Pep rates him so highly, and was adamant on signing him from Barcelona.
(All statistics according to Whoscored.com)