Munich - Choices, choices. Pep Guardiola had them in abundance when he took up the reins as FC Bayern Munich head coach at the end of June, and now he has even more, after the 2012/13 treble-winners added FC Barcelona's Thiago Alcantara to their ranks.
Star turn at U-21 Euros
Guardiola was unusually forthright about his desire to get his former protégé Alcantara on board. Within days, the deal was done, and now the focus of interest has switched to the role the new man will assume in an FC Bayern midfield already bursting with world-class talent.
Alcantara is one of Europe's hottest prospects. A full Spain international (three caps) and with close to 100 first-team appearances for Barcelona under his belt, he arrives in Munich already tried and tested at the highest level. After skippering Spain to victory at the UEFA U-21 Championships in June - and scoring a hat-trick against Italy in the final - he was voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player, the UEFA technical team citing his "impressive box-to-box work, exceptional ball control even in the tightest situations, ability to dictate the tempo of play, intelligent ball-winning based on anticipation rather than tackling and outstanding playmaking predicated on a wide variety of short and long passing."
Little wonder, then, that Guardiola views him as an indispensable component of his forward planning. Yet that is by no means a guarantee of a regular starting slot for a player often squeezed out by competition from the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou. Along the way to wrapping up a treble unique in the German game, Bayern of course dismantled Barcelona to the aggregate tune of 7-0 in the UEFA Champions League semi-final. They did so deploying a five-man midfield, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez lying deep behind Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery down the right and left flanks and Thomas Müller operating more or less down the middle.
Crowded midfield house
For much of the season, prior to a hip adductor injury, Toni Kroos had excelled in the advanced playmaker role, with Müller playing on the right and Robben often having to sit it out on the bench. Kroos is now back in action and with Brazil first-teamer Luiz Gustavo also competing for a holding berth, as well as Swiss talent Xherdan Shaqiri staking a claim for a place out wide, Bayern were hardly short of options even before the sensational announcement that super-talent Mario Götze had also been snapped up from rivals Borussia Dortmund.
So where will Alcantara fit in? Guardiola has stressed that he will not be "making changes for the sake of it" to the system which reaped his new employers such rich rewards last term. And he would not need to in order to accommodate a player equally at home in a creative holding role or further up the pitch, in the position shared of late by Kroos and Müller. In Bayern's early pre-season friendlies, the Catalan tactician has been experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 line-up. Kroos, incidentally, was the sole nominal deep-lying midfielder in the recent 4-0 win at Hansa Rostock and, like the 23-year-old Germany international, Alcantara has the vision and ability to assume that role, potentially freeing up Schweinsteiger and Martinez to take on even more of a box-to-box function.
Guardiola also has the option of switching Martinez to the centre of the defence and allowing Schweinsteiger to forge a new partnership with Alcantara, further upping Bayern's creative quotient in the middle of the park. On the other hand, the La Masia graduate can potentially offer Bayern just as much in a more advanced role himself, as he vividly demonstrated for his country at last month's finals in Israel. For good measure, he has also been deployed out on the left for both club and country.
The most likely scenario, perhaps, is that Alcantara, like a number of his new colleagues in Munich, will find himself playing more than one part for FC Bayern as they seek to maintain their new-found status at the very top of the European game. As Guardiola himself pointed out, "We're competing in six competitions. We need the whole squad." Indeed - alongside the DFL and UEFA Supercups, and the defence of last season's treble, Bayern are flying the flag for Europe at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in December. One way or another, Thiago Alcantara will not be short of opportunities to demonstrate precisely why his once and future coach holds him in such uniquely high regard.