Born in Italy to Brazilian parents and representing Spain, Thiago Alcantara is a global star at the heart of the record German champions’ play. The Bayern Munich midfielder has had his ups and downs since joining in 2013, but he has proven his willingness to confront challenges both on and off the pitch.
Regarded as the next Xavi Hernandez as he came through Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, he was later seen by Catalan supporters as the one who got away as he proved himself a true winner in the Bundesliga.
In six full seasons with Bayern, Thiago has won the title six times. Whether under Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Heynckes, Niko Kovac or newly confirmed permanent head coach Hansi Flick, the rule of thumb has been: Thiago plays.
In reality, only injury has limited the midfielder to 227 competitive appearances for Bayern, the worst of which was a knee problem them saw him miss almost 12 months of action across 2014 and 2015.
Ankle troubles also hampered his start to life in Munich, but it was clear that the Spain international was the right fit at the Allianz Arena, becoming the first player in Bundesliga history to win each of his first 15 games in the league. The knee layoff in fact meant it was nearly two years before he suffered his first Bundesliga defeat, in May 2015 – with two titles already on the mantlepiece.
Over seven seasons with Bayern, Thiago has boasted a pass completion rate of around 90 per cent, proving himself one of the best on the ball with his vision and accuracy. Yet a debate has raged over where best to utilise him.
He has featured as a number 10 looking to deliver the final ball, as a number six at the base of the midfield looking to break up play and redistribute possession from deep, or as a midfield all-rounder providing momentum to the play, acting as distributor-in-chief from a more advanced position in the centre of the pitch.
It’s that vision and tenacious attitude to want the ball that saw coaches look at deploying the former Flamengo youth player as deep as possible, to allow him an overview of proceedings and the chance to dictate the game.
Although he may have scored a hat-trick in the final of the 2013 UEFA European U21 Championship, Thiago wasn’t known as a goalscorer. Yet playing as the deepest midfielder, perhaps intended in the image his 1994 FIFA World Cup-winning father Mazinho, left him too far from goal and unable to truly impact on the game.
In the first half of the current campaign, for example, he failed to register a goal or an assist in 14 league games. So linked to Bayern’s play is he, that his struggles meant the team also found the going tough. In an almost unthinkable move, he was benched for the first four matches under Flick.
The winter break allowed the defending champions to regroup and reorganise. On paper, very little changed in the line-up, but Thiago’s role did. He was now afforded a partner in midfield, mostly Joshua Kimmich, whose job it would be to sit deep and do the dirty work.
This allowed Thiago the freedom to roam, less restrained tactically, distributing the ball and then popping up in space himself.
The results were immediate as he scored in each of Bayern’s first three Bundesliga games of 2020. It was the first time he’d ever netted in three straight matches as the shackles were released and the Munich club began their climb back to the Bundesliga summit, which they completed thanks to victory against Mainz on Matchday 20, which included a sublime drag and finish by the 37-time Spain international.
“Thiago is doing really well, which isn’t a surprise because I know what a player he is,” said Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.
Watch: Thiago helped Bayern to a 3-1 win at Mainz with a silky goal
The midfielder’s improvement and returning influence can be seen clearly through his touches. Prior to the winter break, he averaged 87 per 90 minutes. Since the turn of the year that rate has increased substantially to over 96 spells of possession per 90 minutes.
“We started from zero with no regrets from before. It was awesome,” Thiago told bundesliga.com of the mid-season shift. “It was a rollercoaster because we didn’t start the season with a strong football performance.
“Over time, we developed better football and found ourselves. We did everything better.”
So, if the winter break worked in Bayern’s favour, what does the current enforced hiatus mean for the defending champions?
“My objective for the season is that when everything starts, we’re ready for the season,” the midfielder stated in his interview from lockdown at home. “Even if we don’t play with a crowd, which is very important for us, even then we must be ready. For me now, I’m focussed on that.”
While Thiago and his Bayern teammates have been keeping fit for an eventual restart, the Spain international has also been keeping an eye on tragic events in his homeland.
His Alcantara Family Foundation, set up almost two years ago, had already been helping children integrate into society. Now it has looked to help hospitals under strain from the coronavirus, as well as looking to keep children entertained and provide them with a voice online, teaming up with Unicef for Clip Club TV on YouTube.
According to Thiago, it’s a “lifetime job and I’ll do it until I die. I’m still a football player but now we’re working 100 per cent in the foundation”.
His vision on the pitch is revered, but his view of the world away from football shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Thiago’s own form has become intrinsically intertwined with that of Bayern ever since he swapped Barcelona for Bavaria in 2013. His ability to make the team tick and lead from the heart of midfield has played a major part in the club’s greatest period of domestic dominance. Bayern fans may wonder whether it would’ve been nothing without Thiago.