Bayern Munich's squad is bursting at the seams with supremely talented footballers, yet there is one name that coach Niko Kovac must be delighted to be able to scribble on his teamsheet, especially this season: midfield maestro Thiago Alcantara.
The Spain international's rare ability isn't news to anyone who has kept even a cursory eye on the German top flight in recent years, but – as bundesliga.com investigates – Bayern's string-puller has upped his game even further in 2018/19…
"Every year, I try to be stronger than last year," Thiago recently told SPORT1. "At the moment I'm stronger than I was last season – and next season I want to be even better than I am now."
Borussia Dortmund and the rest have been warned…
No Thiago, no party
Thiago has featured in 17 of Bayern's 21 league games this season. With the 27-year-old in the team, Kovac's side have won 14, drawn one and lost two, picking up an average of 2.5 points a game.
On the other hand, they have failed to win any of the four Bundesliga outings this term when their influential No.6 has been missing. Thiago had to sit out most of November with an ankle ligament injury, and during that period the reigning champions drew with modest duo Freiburg (1-1) and Fortuna Düsseldorf (3-3) at the Allianz Arena, as well as conceding a 3-2 defeat away to Dortmund in Der Klassiker.
The Spaniard was also absent for the 3-1 reverse at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 20, meaning that Bayern have picked up just 0.5 points a game without him on the pitch.
Had the record champions garnered their Thiago-inspired average of 2.5 points a game in all 20 outings so far, they would be a couple of points ahead of current leaders Dortmund instead of five behind them. And if you applied their Thiago-less record to the entire season, they would have a grand total of 10 points, putting them two below Nuremberg at the bottom!
While the latter hypothesis is clearly far-fetched, there is no denying the importance of Thiago in the current Bayern setup. So what has changed?
This season, Kovac has restored the Spaniard to his traditional holding role, rather than the more attacking position favoured by Carlo Ancelotti in 2016/17. In that campaign, the Spaniard posted a career-best tally of six goals and five assists – but Ancelotti could call on Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal to plug the gaps in midfield, a luxury not shared by Kovac.
In 2018/19, the 27-year-old has only had a hand in three goals – teeing up James Rodriguez at home to Leverkusen before scoring against Mainz and VfB Stuttgart – but he has given Bayern much-needed balance from the centre of the pitch, providing crucial defensive cover. The stats don't lie: in their four outings without Thiago, the record champions shipped 10 goals (2.5 per game), while they have conceded just 14 in the 17 matches with him in the line-up (0.82 per game).
Thiago's laser-like passing ability has long been the most famed aspect of his game, and he continues to circulate the ball with the regularity of a metronome – this term he boasts a staggering 93 per cent pass completion rate, which is second only to Dortmund's Axel Witsel among Bundesliga midfielders.
An area where the Spaniard has clearly improved is his challenges. Despite a host of injury niggles over the years, Thiago has never looked fitter or stronger, and he is throwing himself into tackles with relish this season, winning 65 per cent of his duels. That is the best mark for any midfielder in the division and underlines just how hard it is to get past the Barcelona youth product.
"Thiago has played an extraordinarily good season until now," Kovac declared towards the end of 2018. "In all games, very dominant, very present. He's filled a spot in our team with his quality on the pitch."
The best ever Thiago?
Thiago has been an important cog in the Bayern machine ever since his arrival in 2013. Then manager Pep Guardiola famously insisted that his former Barcelona protégé was "the only player he wanted" during that first summer, and the Italian-born Spaniard – the son of Brazilian 1994 FIFA World Cup winner Mazinho – has spent the last six years showing exactly why that was.
With Thiago on the pitch, Bayern have won 81 per cent of their Bundesliga games (92/113) since the start of 2013/14, losing on just nine occasions. In the 78 games where he was missing, that ratio of victory dropped to 72 per cent. And more importantly, the Bavarian giants have lifted the Bundesliga Meisterschale in all five of his seasons in Germany.
In previous years the 27-year-old was hindered by injuries – he only made seven Bundesliga appearances in 2014/15, for example – and faced some stiff competition, with world-class midfielders like Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Alonso and Vidal also vying for a place in the Bayern starting XI. Now, by contrast, Thiago looks increasingly like one of the first names on the teamsheet, of similar importance to Manuel Neuer or Robert Lewandowski.
"As you get older, you get more experienced in football," he admitted. "And you get used to playing alongside different teammates. So it means every season is different."
Bayern's victory over Stuttgart on Matchday 19 was a perfect illustration of Thiago's talent. The No.6 sprang forward to give his side the lead on just five minutes, threading a low shot past three defenders and into the bottom corner. He went on to complete 119 of his 123 passes – 20 more than anyone else – and had a game-high 137 touches as Bayern ran out 4-1 winners.
Watch: Thiago ran the show against Stuttgart at the Allianz Arena
Kovac's side are heading into a crucial period between now and early April. As well as looking to close the five-point gap on Dortmund in the Bundesliga, with games against Augsburg, Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach, the Bavarian giants face Liverpool and their old foe Jürgen Klopp in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, before welcoming Heidenheim in the DFB Cup quarter-finals.
And one thing's for sure: they'll need their Spanish supremo firing on all cylinders if they want to be lifting more silverware come May.