Why Bayern Munich were willing to let Thiago go
Losing a player of Thiago's calibre would be a blow for any team, but Bayern Munich will not be overly concerned about plugging the gap he leaves given the presence of another world-class central midfielder already at the club: Joshua Kimmich.
That is not to diminish Thiago's impact in Munich. Signed by Pep Guardiola in 2013, the 29-year-old has chalked up 150 Bundesliga appearances, seven league titles and has been an ever-present under subsequent coaches including Carlo Ancelotti, Jupp Heynckes, Niko Kovac and Hansi Flick. The latter even tended to make repeated references to the player’s "extraordinary quality" whenever asked about him.
It is easy to see why. In 2019/20, Thiago completed 91 per cent of all his passes, averaged 85 touches per game and scored three goals (no assists) from his deep-lying position in central midfield, playing a key role in Bayern's eighth successive Bundesliga title triumph.
Watch: How Thiago influenced Bayern's midfield
And yet as impressive as those numbers are, Kimmich still topped them. The 25-year-old found a teammate 92 per cent of the time with his passes, had a league high average of 97 touches per game, all while scoring four and providing seven assists.
Having established himself as Philipp Lahm's replacement at right-back in recent seasons, the Germany international cemented a place in his preferred position in central midfield in 2019/20, making 26 of his 33 league outings there – only helping out as full-back when injury or suspension to teammates required it.
"Joshua's development has been outstanding," said Flick after Kimmich’s stunning chip dealt what was effectively the knockout blow to Borussia Dortmund’s title tilt in Der Klassiker on Matchday 28. "He's played at right-back a lot for Bayern but we made a decision to put him in defensive midfield as a number six [this season] because we believe he can utilise his qualities and strengths even more there.
"He covers a lot of ground and is someone who organises the game, but he can also have an impact in the final third. He's important defensively too, and is a pillar of our defensive work."
Watch: Kimmich's May Goal of the Month against Dortmund
The attacking impact Flick refers to is not only measured in his goals and assists. While Thiago is rightly revered for his vision and ability to play decisive through-balls, nobody else in the Bundesliga comes close to Kimmich when playing the 'pass before the pass'.
An unfamiliar term, perhaps, and best seen in order to be better conceptualised. The very first goal of the 2019/20 campaign offers the perfect example of it, with Kimmich threading a defence-splitting ball into the path of Serge Gnabry, who was left with a relatively simple assist to give Robert Lewandowski a tap-in against Hertha Berlin on Matchday 1.
Kimmich made a league-high 10 of these key passes over the course of the season, meaning he had a hand in almost a quarter of all Bayern's 100 goals – and that from defensive midfield.
Watch: Skip to 0:13 seconds to see Kimmich's first 'pass before the pass' of the season
He was at it again in the DFB Cup final at the start of July. First he provided the assist for Gnabry to score the second of the game, before playing a perfectly weighted pass through the Bayer Leverkusen backline for Ivan Perisic, who teed up Lewandowski for Bayern's fourth as Flick’s side sealed the double.
Arguably his greatest quality, however, is one that is far less tangible. While Kimmich may not have the same Brazilian flair as Thiago – son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho – whose shoulder dips and feints often drew delighted gasps from the crowd, he more than makes up for it with other attributes.
"He exudes motivation out on the pitch, he's always aggressive," said Germany coach Joachim Löw after watching Bayern's cup triumph over Leverkusen. "He always wants to win; that winning mentality is what he brings to the team."
That mirrors Flick's own assessment of the player: "He's someone who always drives the team on, who's always 100 per cent focused and who has a winning mentality. He doesn't just do that in games but in training too."
Kimmich himself has made no secret of his desire to exploit those very characteristics to become even more of a pivotal member of the team.
"My aim is to become a leader at Bayern and with Germany; it's a role I'm not afraid of," he once said. "By nature, I'm definitely a person who likes to take responsibility. [However,] telling others something or supporting them will only work if your own performance is consistently good; if not, nobody will put any faith in what you say."
It is safe to say Bayern have been putting their faith in Kimmich for a while now – and with Thiago gone, they are set to do so even more.
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