He may only have 10 senior appearances for Bayern Munich under his belt, but 21-year-old Michael Cuisance has already shown flashes of his world-class potential, and could well be the man to inherit Thiago's mantle as the record champions' midfield metronome.
Cuisance arrived in Bavaria from Borussia Mönchengladbach last summer, but spent the majority of the 2019/20 campaign on the bench, with Thiago, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka pulling the strings in the Bayern midfield.
As Hansi Flick's side closed on an eighth straight league title, the Frenchman was handed his first starts of the season, beginning with a 2-1 win over his former employers Gladbach on Matchday 31. He then notched his first Bundesliga goal in superb style on the final day in Wolfsburg, drilling an unstoppable effort into the top corner. Cuisance also later won a penalty as Bayern eased to a 4-0 victory, finishing 13 points clear of runners-up Borussia Dortmund.
Watch: Cuisance turned on the style as Bayern tamed the Wolves on Matchday 34
"The lads could see all the work I was putting in on a daily basis, they were waiting for it to pay off," Cuisance told French sports daily L'Equipe, when asked about his Wolfsburg wondergoal. "In training I kept hitting the post, they nicknamed me 'Metal Man'! And when I scored, the first thing [Robert] Lewandowski said to me was, 'You didn't hit the bar!'"
A versatile player who can operate across the midfield, Cuisance looks most at home in the deep-lying playmaker role that Thiago made his own over the past seven years, since joining Bayern from boyhood club Barcelona. Unsurprisingly, when Cuisance first reported to Säbener Straße, the ambitious youngster was keen to learn all he could from the La Masia-made pass master.
"Thiago, he's phenomenal," admitted Cuisance, who described his first training sessions as a "rollercoaster experience. I chose to sit next to him, I wanted to learn from one of the best midfielders in the business. He's helped me a lot, he's a good guy. He's at the top and I'm still at the bottom."
And yet progress has been swift. Born in Strasbourg, only a stone's throw from the Franco-German border, Cuisance spent five years with his hometown club (2007-2012) before making a name for himself in the Nancy youth side (2014-2017) and earning a move to Gladbach. Several top clubs had the talented teenager on their radar at the time, including Manchester City – but he chose to hone his skills in the Bundesliga, where youngsters are really given a chance to shine, rather than link up with former Bayern boss Pep Guardiola in the English Premier League.
"It's hard to say no to Pep Guardiola," Cuisance acknowledged. "Because we know what kind of coach he is, how he gets his teams to play. We said nice things to each other, but that's between us! Maybe I'll join up with him one day. I've never regretted it [leaving France for Germany at 17]. I'm at Bayern now and I couldn't be happier. They weren't easy decisions, but time has shown they were the right ones."
Cuisance arrived at Gladbach as a replacement for the Dortmund-bound Mahmoud Dahoud and was quickly thrown in at the deep end, making 24 Bundesliga appearances (including nine starts) in the 2017/18 campaign. For a player who had never made a single senior appearance at Nancy, he displayed remarkable maturity in his new surroundings, belying his inexperience with a string of assured performances. It didn't take him long to win over the Foals fans, who later voted him their Player of the Season.
Bayern had been keeping a close eye on Cuisance's development and made their move in summer 2019, snapping up Gladbach's creative left-footer on a five-year deal. He is now one of a six-man contingent of French players at the club, alongside Kingsley Coman, Corentin Tolisso, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Tanguy Nianzou.
"[Joining Bayern] was one of the best career choices I've made," Cuisance insisted. "I can spend years here, learning from the best players in the world. I can only get better. It wasn't easy at the start because I wasn't playing, but I decided to knuckle down and hang in there."
Having only played a bit-part role in his second season at Gladbach – with fierce competition in midfield restricting him to just 11 league appearances and a solitary start – Cuisance has also learned to be patient on the Bayern bench, with Kimmich, Thiago and Goretzka tending to get the nod from Flick, and Tolisso, Philippe Coutinho and Javi Martinez also vying for minutes in midfield.
"I've made real progress with that," he explained. "At the start, when I wanted something, it had to be now, or it would get my back up. I could have stopped and said, 'I'm not playing, that's that, it's over'. But I kept going. I want to play more, to establish myself in the team. I need to string together a run of games and improve my stats. I know I can contribute as much as the others."
Bayern coach Flick admitted he was pleased with Cuisance's star turn against Wolfsburg, praising his attitude during the coronavirus-enforced lockdown and adding that he was showing the "right mentality" to continue his development. The Frenchman will be hoping to make an impact from the bench in Bayern's remaining UEFA Champions League games in August, and then keep fighting for his place in the starting XI in 2020/21 and beyond.
"I've got five years ahead of me," he concluded. "I think my head is conditioned for this kind of club, for the highest level. There are top players here, but I know that I can succeed."