What is Thiago Alcantara's best position at Bayern Munich?
"Thiago can play in three, four or five different positions in midfield," Pep Guardiola said when explaining why he wanted to bring Thiago Alcantara to Bayern Munich, but what is the Spain international's best position?
It is perhaps only natural for a cosmopolitan man born in Italy to a Brazilian World Cup-winning father, and who spent spells of his childhood at the Anglo-American school in Rio de Janeiro before turning into a teenager in Spain to feel he’s at home anywhere in the world, never mind on the pitch.
After the serious injury that ruined his promising first season in Germany, Thiago has proven his old boss right — but where does he perform best? If Johan Cruyff is the embodiment of 'total football,' bundesliga.com looks at the Bayern man who is the 'total footballer.'
Watch: Thiago answers life questions in 60 seconds!
As a number 6 (holding midfielder)
"He has so much quality, above all his mentality," said Guardiola. "He always thinks that everything is possible. He has no fear."
Only 23 of his 98 Bundesliga appearances to date have been in the conservative, defensive position that goes — as Spanish football expert Graham Hunter told bundesliga.com— very much against his "Brazilian instincts." But Thiago has certainly not been scared to roll up his sleeves when he has been asked to play it during his five years in Germany.
His 61 per cent ratio of challenges won would be the envy of many a more defensive-minded player while winning 65.5 per cent of his aerial duels is evidence of the fighting spirit packed into his relatively modest 5'7" frame.
Naturally though, Thiago's creative talents inevitably creep into his play, and that is by no means a bad thing.
With the majority of the pitch in front of him, and red-shirted options aplenty, Thiago's ability to match and deliver the right ball with his vision and imagination makes him a potent weapon.
Just 9.7 per cent of his passes in this position have gone astray — the lowest percentage of any of the three posts he has filled at Bayern — while a stunning 82.5 per cent of his long passes have hit their target.
What would be a hopeful punt forward from some is delivered with such laser-guided precision that Bayern can exploit the pace of the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Kingsley Coman in wide positions, turning defence into attack with one devastating delivery, or accurately picking out Robert Lewandowski to hold the ball up and bring others into play.
Being positioned so far down the pitch does take the edge off one element of his game: his goal threat. He has managed only two goals and three assists, finding the net every 11 shots — a higher ratio than in either of the other two roles.
Watch: Thiago's last goal came in the Supercup win over Eintracht Frankfurt!
So yes, he can do it, and quite brilliantly. But isn't it just a bit of waste? "Thiago has to be at the centre of things. He played a little too deep at Barca. Thiago has to be closer to the penalty area to make the difference," Thiago's first coach, Javier Lago, said to explain his former protege's difficulties at the Camp Nou.
"You have to give him the liberty to express himself. For example, he loves dribbling. But at Barca, if he plays deeper and he loses the ball, it immediately becomes dangerous. So, he holds himself back."
As a number 8 (central/box to box midfielder)
"I think he has always thought of himself as a pivote, a [Sergio] Busquets, always wanting to be on the ball 200 times a game instead of 80, constantly prompting, constantly offering," said Hunter, who watched Thiago emerge from Barcelona's youth academy to stake a first-team place at the Camp Nou.
"The great misfortune for him is that Sergio Busquets was always in his way at Barca."
While the deeper role in Barca's midfield three may have been what Thiago always wanted, there was little doubt whom he was being groomed to replace: Xavi.
The iconic Barcelona and Spain midfielder, the hub of that slick blaugrana machine crafted by Guardiola in Catalonia — for all his superhuman skills — was not immortal, and a successor would have to be found. That heir was Thiago.
"He looks very calm and did a great job", Gerard Pique said of the youngster, drafted into the first team by Pep as an 18-year-old in 2009. "He's shown he can come into the team, that he's a great player," said Cristian Tello, like Thiago, a graduate of La Masia Barca's youth academy. "When Xavi isn't there, he can replace him and he does it very well."
Guardiola's insistence that he be reunited with Thiago in Germany did not give him the chance to fully take on the mantle of the Barca great, but he has certainly shown at Bayern that he could have done so.
With Xabi Alonso or Javi Martinez in the 'Busquets role', Thiago has been employed further up the pitch — an '8' as it is known in Germany — and is the position in which he has most been used, playing it in 54 Bundesliga games.
It is also the role which seems to suit him best. He covers an average of nearly 7 miles a match, winning a more than respectable 58 per cent of his challenges, which shows that he does not neglect the sweatier side of the role.
More significantly, it also allows him to open up creatively.
He has almost as many touches per 90 minutes as he does when he is a '6' — 118 to 113 — but they are in areas where he can directly hurt opponents. It is no coincidence that when he set a then-Bundesliga record of 185 touches for 90 minutes, Bayern handed Eintracht Frankfurt a 5-0 defeat that day.
That is because, closer to the opponent's goal, he can be central to producing game-turning moments: he is involved in a goal every 223 minutes in this position, 341 in a more defensive role.
The security of having a player positioned behind him, such as Alonso, Martinez or — on occasion under Guardiola — Philipp Lahm, means he can attempt to provide his team with a solution without the fear of the consequences of it not coming off.
"That's his best position I'd say," said Hunter. "It means that rather than him having to systematically make the right decision and not only making it but also getting it right, he can take those risks knowing there will be someone behind him to cover if it doesn't come off."
As a number 10 (attacking midfielder)
When Carlo Ancelotti succeded Guardiola in summer 2016, he decided Thiago would be the creative hub of his team, and even pushed him further up the pitch than ever into the position James Rodriguez now fills in the Bayern XI.
The Colombia international certainly would have had more serious competition from Thiago for the role had injury not struck in 2017/18 as the Spaniard is just as effective when it comes to performing in the high-pressure situations squeezed up near the opposition penalty area.
In just ten Bundesliga appearances as a number 10, and only seven starts, Thiago scored three goals and registered an assist — that's one goal every 4.7 shots, compared to 9.4 as an '8' — and means he was involved in a Bayern goal every 179 minutes, a world-class stat of just under once every two games.
Watch: The best of Thiago at Bayern!
"He has that class to unpick locks further up the pitch," said Hunter, and the fact he completed more passes in his opponents' final third than any other Bundesliga player in 2016/17 is testament to that.
Had he played in the position more often, then he would have been able to use that ability to improve on his slightly underwhelming record of 12 goals in nearly 100 Bundesliga games for Bayern.
"I have always thought he has dramatically more goals in him," said Hunter, who watched Thiago dominate the Under-21 EURO final tournament that Spain won — thanks to a Thiago hat-trick in the final against Italy — just weeks before his switch to Bayern was completed.
"He could have been double the transfer value and had double the appreciation if he had been a number 10."
A master of all trades?
Perhaps the main difficulty in deciding what his best position is is that — as Guardiola said — Thiago could play across the midfield and still excel, dialling up and toning down his qualities to snugly fit the situation his team requires.
"Football’s always been cerebral," Thiago told The Guardian. "The most important thing is thinking fast. I have my personality, my style, but my development’s been about adapting. I’ve always wanted to learn in the areas where I’m most lacking."
At 27 and at the peak of his powers, he is going to have to wrack his surgically sharp brain to find those places where he falls short.