Profile: Thiago, the psychological talent

Barça’s loss is Bayern’s gain. Thiago Alcântara do Nascimento (San Pietro Vernotico, 1991) is Bayern’s newest player, signing from the Catalan club for 25m€ after a long summer of speculation on his future. The son of former Brazilian international Mazinho will be signing a contract until 2017 after his medical in the next few days. This brings to a close a chapter on the future of the Spanish U21 talent, a chapter which has been ongoing since Pep Guardiola was named new Bayern manager and since Thiago wasn’t getting the minutes he wanted at Barça, which made him the perfect target for Bayern in the eyes of the press and, eventually, in the eyes of FC Bayern.

The way Thiago came to be available so cheaply was with a clause in his previous contract at Barcelona which triggered a release clause of 18m€ if the player did not play 60% of Barça’s matches the season prior. 60% was a number which wasn’t reached and, until July 31st 2013, Thiago’s release clause was to be of 18m€, going up to 90m€ on August 1st.

Thiago the player

Many Barça fans will feel aggrieved at the transfer of yet another huge talent emerging from La Masia, especially for such a low amount considering that only a day prior, Asier Illarramendi, a fellow Spain U21 player of Thiago’s, was transferred to Real Madrid from Real Sociedad for a fee of 39m€, with it being clear that the Basque player, whilst talented, is nowhere near Thiago’s level.

The first time Thiago became known to the Barça fans was in a pre-season friendly for Barça’s B-team against Swansea City back in the summer of 2008. He had just been promoted from the U19s and he was highly rated, although that has been the case for many players at Barça who have been of high promise at youth levels and have faded into oblivion. The comfort that Thiago showed on the ball, the fluency in his play, the ease with which he drove the ball and passed it thrilled the few thousand who were at the Mini Estadi that hot evening in August. It was the birth of a star. The only ‘but’ in his game was the lack of tactical discipline; Thiago roamed around freely for around 60 minutes until he was taken off exhausted by manager Luis Enrique. It had been a thrilling performance which was a sign of things to come.

Thiago was to make his first-team debut at the end of that very season, coming on for Eiður Guðjohnsen with 15 minutes to go at Real Mallorca in the antepenultimate match of the season. The position he occupied was the same as the ones occupied usually by Xavi and Iniesta, most definitely the main reason why he never got the minutes he desired at the Camp Nou in years to come. For the following two seasons though, Thiago was used both by the first team and the B-team, without having a first-team squad number, but it was undoubted that his quality was something quite special. His drive of the ball and flair wowed the Barça faithful, as Thiago brought movement to Barça’s attacking build-up; despite all the famous tiki-taka that Barça perform, the crowd found it pleasing to enjoy directness in their team’s play from time to time, and it always came with Thiago on the pitch.

He wasn’t included as a full member of the first team squad until the 2011/2012 season, bearing the number 11 vacated by Jeffren Suárez, another highly-rated player who never quite made it, a pit in which Thiago was never to fall in. With the new status came more minutes, triplicating the playing time he had had the season before, with 35 starts and 42 matches in all competitions that season. However, with more minutes, his weaknesses came to the surface. His flair can at times be costly, as his outrageous attempts at passing more often than not led to losing the ball in dangerous positions on the pitch. His positioning also sometimes left a lot to be desired, creating spaces for the opposition midfielders, especially in transitions. This affected Thiago’s game greatly, which eventually led him to the bench over and over again last season, which combined with two injuries did not leave him much quality playing time.

Thiago the mind

It could be accurate to state that Thiago is a very psychological player; when confident and given minutes, his extravagant tricks and flicks come off and make all jaws in the crowd drop. There is no doubt that he is one of the most naturally-gifted footballers that La Masia has ever produced but he is equally one of the most frustrating ones. Barça’s game is based on possession and losing possession in controlled areas, so that they can regain possession as soon as possible as they already know how to defend it from said position as they know where they’re going to lose it. Thiago broke that mould. His constant misplaced passes all over the park, more often than not outrageous attempts, brought out the frustration of new Barça manager Tito Vilanova, not as adventurous as his predecessor and not a fan of Thiago’s style of play.

Bayern’s fans will remember his outstanding performance in the 2011 Audi Cup, as Barça came out 2-0 winners against the Bavarians with a brace by Thiago, one of them a long-range effort that stunned everyone. This was a time where Barça were making their minds up on whether they were going to sign Cesc Fàbregas from Arsenal or not, but Thiago’s performance that evening led to believe that Cesc was surplus to requirements. It was time for Thiago to shine. It later emerged in a press conference by Guardiola himself that it had been Vilanova who had pressed the most for Cesc’s capture, with the then #2 much more of a fan of the former Arsenal player’s style of keeping the ball that Thiago’s, which was quite the opposite. It came as no surprise that, when Vilanova came to the helm, Thiago’s minutes were numbered. His playing time was reduced considerably in all competitions but the most important fact is that his appearances were mostly against weaker opposition, being left out of almost all the big and important games Barça played.

The player’s unrest grew and he had already made it clear during his previous contract renewal in 2011 that he was ready to try his fortune elsewhere if he didn’t have the minutes he thought he deserved at Barça. Such was his quest for playing time that he included the clause that finally released him from Barça in his contract, a clause that guaranteed him playing time, at the Camp Nou or somewhere else.

What Bayern can expect of Thiago

Bayern’s midfield is overflowing. At Barça, Thiago mostly played in central midfield in the 4-3-3 formation, although his vision, flair and skills are much better suited to the position playing behind the striker. He can see passes where nobody else can (which was what led people to label him Xavi’s successor, completely omitting the fact that they are completely opposite players in many aspects), sometimes even reminiscing of the best version of Michael Laudrup by looking one way and passing to the other, something unseen at Barcelona since the best days of Ronaldinho. He is a player that embodies what Guardiola likes to see in his teams, which is keeping the ball moving, although his dispossessions will be an aspect that Thiago will definitely have to work on harder, as possession is everything for the Catalan manager.

It’s quite a strange move for Thiago, as Bayern’s current squad by no means guarantees he will start every game, which obviously has nothing to do with his undoubted quality. His quest for minutes have the plus point that he will be playing for the manager who has used him the most in his career so far but the obstacles he will have in front have surely planted seeds of doubt among skeptics who see this transfer as unnecessary, both for player and club. However, if Guardiola gives him the confidence he gave him two seasons ago, Thiago’s game will flourish and Bayern fans have a diamond on their hands; on the other hand, if he stays longer on the bench than he does on the pitch, it will have been 25m€ wasted, as Thiago needs to have everything going for him in order to display his best football. When the head is right, when he feels important, the feet correspond, and his outstanding talent comes to the surface . For the benefit of Bayern fans and football fans in general, to see his surging runs forward, his outrageous passes and excellent finishing skills will be a sign that one of the top talents in football who has emerged in the last ten years is back to his best. Thiago is a joy to watch like few footballers are, but it will be down to the management to make sure that his best football comes to the light.

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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