Thiago Alcantara : Tactical Analysis of a Brilliant Comeback Campaign

The list of achievement is impressive: a penalty decider in the thrilling Pokal shootout against Leverkusen, an away goal in Porto keeping Bayern’s UCL hopes alive, and finally the opener in Bayern’s 6-1 dismantling of FC Porto. These key moments make Thiago Alcantara’s return to Bayern’s starting lineup appear perfect. Doubts about the Spaniard lengthy injury exodus and wider future have quickly disappeared.

According to this convention thinking, Thiago’s arrival back on the field has been a combination of perfect timing brilliant football. But a question can be posed, is this conventional thinking true?

If you judge Thiago by the two goals he’s responsible for creating, the answer is yes. But this contribution is only one facet of his game, and indeed only facet of football in general. The next, and arguably more important, question is how has Thiago managed to get so involved in Bayern’s play while simultaneously increasing its quality?

Football is built on many simple details.

Two opponents are separated by about 100 meters between the two goals, creating a space for an infinite amount of possible actions inside these boundaries. Scoring a goal is the concrete result of a chain reaction built through individuals moving, positioning, passing, dribbling, intercepting, spacing, and all other elements.  So I’m interested in examining how Thiago has managed to involve himself in all these elements of Bayern’s play, since coming back.

Thiago’s first game back was against Dortmund. According to Whoscored.com’s data, Thiago made one interception. Brilliant? Nope. But, if you see the match and see how Thiago Alcantara made this single lone interception then, you’ll how brilliant his play is.

Thiago Alcantara's interception against Dortmund in three images
Thiago’s key tackle against Dortmund.

In the 1st image, Thiago is in defensive transition. Gradually, he moves forward in a supporting role, staying outside the box. This positioning has two advantages. First, Thiago potentially has the chance to “recycle” (Football Manager terminology) possession if Dortmund stop the Bayern attack with a ball clearance. Second, as seen in the 2nd image, Thiago acts as the team “filter” (another Football Manager term) – i.e. the first line of defense in stopping a BVB counter attack – as the deepest midfielder, if needed.

Dortmund stopped the attack. Mats Hummels played the ball to Kuba on Bayern’s left. In turn, the Pole played the ball to the central area occupied by Kagawa. As seen in the 3rd image, when Xabi was dragged to the wide area, Thiago tracked back and made a perfectly sliding tackle on Kagawa (the yellow circle).

In many similar situations, Thiago almost always puts himself in the right position. On another occasion from the Dortmund match, and during many other matches, he made a very useful ball recovery, which in turn, helped Bayern launch an attack. Ball recovery is crucial in activating a team’s attacking plan. Here’s an image:

Thiago's positioning for some ball "recycling."
Thiago’s positioning for some ball “recycling.”

In the image, Thiago is well positioned for a “ball recycle” maneuver. This happened when Neven Subotic won an aerial duel against Müller, sending the ball flying. Because Thaigo positioned himself deep in the midfield, he had a good chance to scoop up the ball and “recycle” it, helping to jump start Bayern’s attack.

You can see another example of Thiago’s uncanny ball recovery skill from Bayern’s recent 6-1 UCL route of FC Porto:

Thiago achieves another key ball recovery against Dortmund.
Thiago achieves another key ball recovery against FC Porto.

In this image, Thiago exhibit keen determination to recover the ball. Here, the sequence began by an aerial duel between Lewandowski and Diego Reyes. The ball falls to an empty area. Thiago, with his speed and outstanding instincts, comes from behind and takes controls it, winning a one-on-one duel with Quaresma. Next, Thiago passes to Thomas Müller, who, in turn, creates an on-target shot for Bayern.

Aside from his defensive prowess, Thiago is supremely skilled in the attacking phase. He is creative and able to see any attacking opportunity. His attacking prowess is demonstrated by several sequences showing him brilliantly helping Bayern to create promising attacking chances.

The first examples comes from a recent Bundesliga match against Eintracht Frankfurt, as seen in the image below:

Thiago's nifty backheel against Eintrach Frankfurt.
Thiago’s nifty backheel against Eintrach Frankfurt.

In this example, Thiago’s plays a backheel to Götze. Here, three actions stand out.

First, the backheel itself, arguably as the most unpredictable type of pass in football. It’s upside is big: a backheel can potentially ruin the opponent’s defensive system, and can keep opponents constantly guessing. In this case, Thiago’s back heel is perfectly timed, thus increasing the quality of Bayern’s attack.

Second, when Thiago receives the pass, he faces Bayern’s right side – away from Frankfurt’s goal – and two defenders tightly press into him. Consequently, Thiago’s backheel decreases the time needed to move the ball into Götze’s more advanced attacking territory. Had Thiago decided to hold the ball longer, he might (1) lose possession or (2) play the ball behind instead of playing it up field.

Third, Thiago’s backheel directly creates a 3-on-3 attacking situation as Götze, Lewy, and Müller face three Frankfurt defenders. A situation favoring Bayern’s superior skill and positioning.

In the next example (from the same match against Eintracht), Thiago demonstrates his multiplicity of passing skills through a brilliant aerial ball, as pictured in the image below:

Thiago's brilliant pass against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Thiago’s brilliant pass against Eintracht Frankfurt.

As you can see, Thiago has four passing outlets to choose from. Which should he chose?

Of the four options, Thiago chooses the most difficult option – to Philipp Lahm. Despite the many players clogging the passing lane, Thiago chose it. However, this most difficult option also happens to be the most promising option, lying in a vulnerable area of Frankfurt’s defence. The outcome? Lahm controlled the pass, laid it off to Müller, who forwarded the ball to Lewandowski, who finish it off in style. Brilliant? Yes.

Later during the same match, Thiago dazzled with his technical skill and awareness by playing a lovely flick-on, as pictured in the image below:

Thiago is about to play a lovely one-touch flick on to the on-rushing Mueller.
Thiago is about to play a lovely one-touch flick on to the on-rushing Mueller.

In this example, Thiago, once again, demonstrates that he influences a huge coverage area on the pitch at anytime. As seen in the image, a 50 meters long pass (by Boateng – not pictured) is about to land in the Porto defense. At this moment, Lewandowski and Müller were dropping away from Porto’s box. However, Thiago manages to pick up the ball and make a one-touch flick-on to the now on-rushing Müller. An amazing awareness of space perfectly displayed by Thiago.

Thiago also demonstrates impressive spatial awareness during build up play, as illustrated in this example from Bayern’s Pokal quarter-final win against Leverkusen. Instead of an image, a chalkboard illustrates the moment:

Thiago quickly switching play to the other flank in the Pokal match against Leverkusen.
Thiago quickly switching play to the other flank in the Pokal match against Leverkusen.

One touch pass and switched the play to the other flank.

In buildup play, Leverkusen press Bayern’s in a man-oriented pressing system. With quick instrincts, Thiago realizes this defensive strategy, when he provides Dante with a passing outlet. As soon as he receives the pass from Dante, Thiago switches the direction of play by passing a 37-40 meter longball to Rafinha, who occupied the right touchline. In this case, Thiago’s quick thinking helped Bayern escape Leverkusen’s aggressive press and creates space for the attack.

In another example of flank-switching (also from the Leverkusen match), Thiago demonstrates his versatility by switching play from Bayern’s right to left flank, as seen in the image below:

Thiago swtiches play from the right to left flank against Leverkusen.
Thiago swtiches play from the right to left flank against Leverkusen.

First notice the poor quality of the pass Thiago picked up. Despite his defender’s tight marking, Thiago passes the ball to the left side, because if/when the ball is received on this side, Bayern has more attacking space, thanks to Leverkusen’s “overloading.” Moreover, Götze – the passing target – is unmarked.

In this example of flank-switching, Thiago did somehing important that all footballers should notice: looking up and taking stock of the situation. Before receiving the pass, Thiago faced Bayern’s right side. He turned his head twice to the 7 and 9 o’clock positions respectively. Thus, when he received the ball, Thiago had a clear plan in mind; he knew where to direct the ball.

At the 95th minute, Thiago did something identical on the pitch’s opposite side. On Bayern’s left side, Thiago received a pass from Xabi and decided to switch the ball and by delivering a diagonal pass (22-25 meters long) to the opposite flank where Bernat was ready to receive it.

The passes two flank-switching passes – to Gotze and then to Bernat – were intended to shift the attacking orientation. For example, if a team is facing an overload of defenders in, say, their left flank, they can make use “empty” right flank area by switching their play with a diagonal or unexpected passing. However, for this work you need a creative player. Luckily, Bayern has Thiago.

Not only does Thiago keep an attack going, he also initiates Bayern’s attack by playing as a “False 8.” For instance, his two goals against FC Porto in the UCL illustrate this capability: Thiago surged into the box, created havoc, created chances, and scored goals in both legs.

However, Thiago also initiates attacks in more subtle ways, as seen in the image below during the 2nd UCL leg against FC Porto:

Thiago initiating Bayern's brilliant 3rd goal against FC Porto in UCL play.
Thiago initiating Bayern’s brilliant 3rd goal against FC Porto in UCL play.

Here, Thiago initiates the sequence leading to Bayern’s stunningly brilliant 3rd goal against Porto. The highlight usually begins with Philip Lahm crossing to Müller, who flicks the ball onto Lewandowski, who scores on a one-touch header. However, before Lahm started the highlight clip on while hugging Porto’s left flank, it was Thiago who initiated the attack. He made a one-touch chop to Lahm, who exploited Porto’s weak left side.

With his Brazilian roots, Thiago is a technically-gifted player, who can skillfully “toy” with the ball. This talent, inevitably, greatly helps him navigate tight spaces, as seen in the image below:

Thiago's mastery of small spaces and passing triangles during the Pokal match against Leverkusen.
Thiago’s mastery of small spaces and passing triangles during the Pokal match against Leverkusen.

Typically, a triangle shape is used to escape an opponent’s pressing system. Additionally, the triangle is also a heavily utilized good shape for possession-based side. Occasionally, however, this advantage can’t be obtained when the opponent manages to put heavy pressure on the ball carrier, or when the positions of three players in the triangle shape just are not ineffective; e.g. too much distance between players.

In the image above, Leverkusen have managed by pressing to create 3-on-1 situation with Thiago. In this extremely tight space with little time, Thiago still found Müller with his pass, which, in turn, led to a quick one-two play between him and Götze. Another example of quick thinking and composure from Thiago.

Finally, Thiago’s versatility allows Pep to move him around the pitch, fitting a variety of game plans. In the 2nd UCL leg against FC Porto, Pep adjusted Bayern’s buildup play, in order to avoid his 4 defenders behind the ball from being pressed by Porto’s “phase 1” pressing-system. This time, Xabi Alonso was not asked to drop back to pick up the ball, giving Jackson Martinez a chance to pick off the play. Instead, Pep opted to keep Alonso slightly higher up the pitch, giving Martinez no chance to press. Consequently, Thiago positioning was also affected. He also played higher up the pitch, acting as a “False 8” on many occasions. This adjusted role suited Thiago well: he scored a goal, made many key passes, and he created play in Porto’s defensive third.

Thiago can also thrive in more deep-lying positions though. His ability to play long balls is remarkable, as aforementioned. His positional sense is excellent when playing deep-central midfield. Sometimes, he helps build a compact pressing system. He can also dictate tempo and determine the play through his passing.

In a nutshell, with Thiago as the creator, Bayern can combine many variant of play, such as an intense pressing game, combined with a quick short pass play or a vertical play with an emphasis on direct passing play. Variety, indeed.

And his role has only increased the deeper into 2015 we get. In his 2015 debut against Dortmund, Thiago played in last 20 minutes. He made 27 touches, 22 passes, 1 key pass, and 3 dribbles. Later against Porto, Thiago earned moreplaying time and made 72 touches, 52 passes, 3 key passes, 4 dribbles, and 7 ball recoveries (he only made 1 ball recovery against Dortmund).

Furthermore, about 74% of his touches and passing combinations occurred in the opponent’s defensive area (mostly in middle third). This number generally illustrates where Thiago area of play has been: he is a “Number 8,” who starts from deeper area and moves into a more advance area. Finally, at the proper moment, he surges into the box.

Pep once said something like the following: “Defense is a structured thing. Attack is more about talent and flair.” For me, this quote represents what is the best possible role for Thiago. Bayern may put him as the hybrid of number 8/6, but they can also give him more license to impact the advance area (a “False 8”), since Thiago has both the talent and flair to do both.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

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