Spanish maestro Xabi Alonso will leave a sizeable gap in the Bayern Munich midfield when he retires after Matchday 34, and yet there are plenty of talented players ready to step into his shoes. bundesliga.com takes a closer look.
How do you replace the man who has won everything? It's a question that Bayern Munich will have to answer twice this summer, with both Alonso and captain Philipp Lahm hanging up their boots. Between them, these two giants of the game have won a staggering 36 trophies, including nine Bundesliga titles, three Champions League crowns and two World Cups.
Watch: Xabi Alonso's passing range is the stuff of legend:
Alonso, who joined from Real Madrid in the summer of 2014, has acted as the beating heart of the Bayern midfield over the past three seasons, tempering the attacking instincts of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Douglas Costa and Co. and bringing that oft-overlooked but indispensable quality – balance – to the reigning four-time Bundesliga champions.
Technically brilliant, and boasting a world-class passing range – not to mention an eye for goal – Alonso has played a crucial role in Bayern's last three consecutive league triumphs. So, who do Bayern have waiting in the wings to replace him?
Perhaps the most obvious man to step into Alonso's shoes is Vidal, who has often played alongside the Spaniard in defensive midfield this season, when Carlo Ancelotti has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation.
One of the Chilean's great strengths is his versatility, and he is arguably the most complete midfielder in the Bayern squad. He is equally capable of sitting just in front of the defence and dictating play from deep, as he is playing further up the pitch and getting involved in Bayern's attacks. His brace in the 5-1 UEFA Champions League thrashing of Arsenal at the beginning of March was the perfect illustration.
King Arturo certainly shares Alonso's hunger for success. Having won four Italian titles with Juventus before his switch to Bavaria, he has now helped Bayern secure a fifth straight Bundesliga crown. He also helped his country to secure historic, back-to-back Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016.
Another potential replacement for Alonso is fellow Spaniard Thiago, who shares his world-class technique and eye for a killer pass. Like Vidal, Thiago can be deployed anywhere in midfield, although he is a little more creative and a little less physical than his Chilean counterpart.
When Pep Guardiola took over at Bayern in 2013, Thiago was the only player that he insisted on signing. During an injury-hit first two seasons, the midfield magician was only able to show glimpses of his remarkable ability to dictate the flow of a game. But since working his way back to full fitness, he has become one of the first names on the team-sheet, and Bayern are a different prospect when they have Thiago pulling the strings.
The Spanish international has been the fifth most-used player under Ancelotti this season, helping Bayern pick up an average of 2.52 points in his 27 appearances. He has also chipped in with six goals and five assists, and looks set to keep masterminding Bayern's midfield operations for many years to come.
Vidal and Thiago are already established first-teamers, so what about the next generation? Joshua Kimmich has certainly shown great potential this term, and has already played several games alongside Alonso in defensive midfield. The 22-year-old is Ancelotti's most-used substitute in 2016/17 along with Renato Sanches, coming off the bench in 11 of his 26 appearances.
There is no doubt that Kimmich represents the future, both at club and international level. Fittingly, within the space of 10 days last September, he netted his first goal for Germany, and his maiden strikes for Bayern in the Bundesliga and the Champions League. Indeed, his stunning form in the early part of the season had many wondering if he could soon be challenging for a place in Ancelotti's starting XI.
With Alonso and Lahm on their way out, that looks an increasingly likely prospect for 2017/18. Kimmich, who is linked to the club until 2020, is a midfielder by trade but can also slot in at right-back, and his versatility looks set to make him a first-team regular in the near future.
Bayern made a statement last summer when they splashed out 35 million euros on Benfica's highly-rated young midfielder. The club clearly have high hopes for the 19-year-old Portuguese international – a winner at UEFA EURO 2016 – although his game time has been limited in 2016/17, in what has so far been a bedding-in season.
Shortly after Alonso announced his retirement, Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Sport Bild, "We hope Renato Sanches follows in Alonso's footsteps – that's why we signed him. He has all the necessary qualities, but we will have to be patient with him."
Sanches has played around 615 minutes in 17 league appearances this term, frequently coming on as a late substitute. Though blessed with pace, power and skill, he is not quite the finished article just yet, and certainly lacks the tactical nous of a Thiago or a Xabi Alonso. Like Kimmich, though, his prospects of first-team football ought to improve in the coming seasons.
Bayern also made waves in January when they announced the signing of Hoffenheim duo Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Süle in the summer of 2017. Rudy, the current TSG captain, is a natural defensive midfielder and has played a major part in his side's excellent Bundesliga season. While he will have plenty to prove in Bavaria, he could also be a useful replacement for the departing Alonso.
"It's an absolute dream for me to go to Munich," the 27-year-old said, after agreeing a three-year deal. "FC Bayern are one of the greatest clubs in the world, and I would like to win trophies there."
Unlike Sanches, Rudy has proven pedigree, having made his 200th Bundesliga appearance two months ago. While he is perhaps unlikely to nail down a position in Ancelotti's first-choice XI, he will at least provide a solid option when the Italian rotates his squad, and can also provide cover at right-back. One of the Bundesliga's most underrated performers, Rudy is unlikely to grab many headlines at Bayern, but he can be relied upon to put in a shift every time he steps onto the pitch.
Watch: Xabi Alonso's top five goals for Bayern Munich:
With such riches at their disposal, the record Bundesliga champions should have no problem in replacing a player even of Xabi Alonso's calibre. Their Spanish metronome may be checking out this summer, but the Bayern midfield looks set to keep ticking like clockwork as the Bavarian giants continue to feed their insatiable hunger for success. Their rivals have been warned.
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