Michael Cox discusses the impressive rise of former Barcelona star Thiago Alcantara - and why the now-Bayern youngster can hurt Arsenal in the Champions League...
The last time Pep Guardiola faced Arsenal, back in 2010/11, he whipped up controversy at his pre-match press conference when talking about Jack Wilshere. “We have many types of player like him in the second team,” said the then-Barcelona coach.
Guardiola wasn’t trying to insult Wilshere or Arsenal – that simply isn’t his style. He was actually attempting to praise the midfielder. “Wilshere is a top player and has been a big, big surprise,” he had begun. After that, he slightly clumsily made the point that Arsenal have more time to develop youngsters, because there isn’t the same intense pressure to perform immediately as at Barcelona, where reserves aren’t always afforded opportunities.
It was the dominant story before that tie, eventually won by Barcelona. Guardiola has probably forgotten all about it – but three years later, as Bayern Munich manager, he has the opportunity to prove he was right.
The Barcelona B side was a highly talented group back in 2010/11. There were the likes of Sergi Roberto, currently breaking into the full squad, one-time Chelsea holding midfielder Oriol Romeu, now back in Spain with Valencia, Everton loanee Gerard Deulofeu and the two Alcantara brothers, Thiago and Rafinha.
It’s the elder of those two brothers, Thiago, who has emerged the greatest player. Back in 2010/11 he made more appearances for the B team than the senior side, but played a greater role in Guardiola’s final season as Barca coach, and under Tito Vilanova.
Thiago showed great promise as understudy to Barcelona’s batch of World Cup-winning midfielders, but become his own man during the European Under-21 Championship last summer, when he captained Spain to the title. The midfielder stormed forward to score a perfect hat-trick in the 4-2 final win over Italy and his quality was more obvious than ever before.
Spotting a loophole in Thiago’s contract at Barcelona, Guardiola pounced – and it helped that Thiago’s agent was none other than Pere Guardiola, the Bayern coach’s brother. The nature of the transfer was controversial in both Spain and Germany, but there’s little doubt that Guardiola made a wise move when electing to pay Thiago’s buy-out clause of around €25 million.
Although Thiago missed three months of the campaign through injury, he returned to become a major part of the midfield – and in recent weeks has arguably been the star man. Perhaps more than any other player, he typifies Guardiola’s Bayern – he offers ball retention, certainly, but also aggression and efficiency on the ball. Thiago isn’t quite like Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta or Cesc Fabregas – he’s more well-rounded on paper, and capable of playing various midfield roles. Guardiola’s Bayern will never be as pure as Guardiola’s Barca, but they could be more ruthless and efficient on the ball. Thiago sums up the difference.
Thiago has been sensational in recent weeks. Against Stuttgart, for example, in a rare match where Bayern were struggling to seal the victory, he demonstrated his ability to dominate the game in terms of passing, yet also provided bursts of inspiration with his dribbling. It’s rare to see a player attempt so many take-ons in central positions – and even rarer that so many are successful.
He was the reason Bayern won that contest, contributing an assist and a goal in the 2-1 win. And the late winner wasn’t simply any goal, it was this goal.
He followed that performance with another superb display in the 5-0 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt. Again, both his passing and his dribbling qualities were obvious. He completed an incredible 148 passes, misplacing just one sideways ball within the central third of the pitch, and only conceding possession when attempting penetrative passes, usually in the final third.
Almost all of his dribbles were successful, and he also constantly recovered the ball in midfield.
Three years ago, Wilshere impressed so much against Barcelona because of his ability to glide past their pressing – he could confidently beat an opponent before laying the ball off reliably. That’s also a key feature of Thiago’s game, and in the recent win over Nurnberg, who closed down higher up the pitch, he constantly dribbled past opponents in his own half, and also won free-kicks in more advanced zones.
It’s arguable that Wilshere’s performance against Barcelona remains his most impressive display in an Arsenal shirt. In the meantime, Thiago has improved considerably and become arguably the best player of his age anywhere in Europe. Perhaps Guardiola was right – Barcelona did have players like Wilshere in their B team. This week, that theory will be tested in a direct confrontation at the Emirates Stadium.