Bayern Munich used to sweep teams aside; though Pep Guardiola occupies a bizarre reputational nexus wherein his worth as a coach seems almost exclusively based on his ability to accrue Champions League crowns, with him stood between helm and mast Bayern dominated all domestic concerns pertinent to them with a dry, exhilarating ruthlessness season in, season out. When he arrived at Bayern Munich to steer them so, to refine his principles of coaching that had so rapidly become so much more Baroque than the relatively simple Rijkaardian method he started with in 2008, he sought to bring one man especially with him. It’s in every article about that man, and this man: “Thiago oder nichts.” You should know what that means by now.
Bringing Thiago Alcantara with him to Bayern seemed a set of concessions from Pep: the elemental ties of his idea of the game to that which he had learned, then embodied, then made evolve at Barcelona; his commitment to the Spanish golden age; his pre-emptive acquisition of a player someone with his instincts could moot without a cheat sheet or tactical read-out as being a future world-beater. Yet, for a time, Thiago seemed functionally speaking to be crown jewels of Bavarian conquest; the flashpoint against Stuttgart and the Cruyffian dream of his Frankfurt performance besides, Thiago gleamed without proof after his arrival, in a team so much beholden still to its German core and neighbouring wing-duo. Ruptures to knee ligaments that spring meant that Thiago passed to the cusp of his 24th birthday bearing the same tag he had borne since his 18th; the prince of tiki-taka apparent to the throne of a flagging Xavi and Iniesta axis, in the midst of an exile that must have seemed rather like swapping a position in the court of Charlemagne for a seat on the right hand of Haroun al-Raschid. The displacement must hardly have stung, glory and victory being equally shared, but Thiago had travelled without moving. With the injury concern to boot, he must’ve found himself looking into the deep just as so many a promising starlet has and will.
Then arrived the superbly cut, sternly levelled brow and avuncular carriage of Carlo Ancelotti. Guardiola’s fixation with midfield, his desire to turn every corner of the pitch into the middle-third, had the side effect of almost nullifying the singular midfield man who would be set to carry the burden. Ancelotti preferred the lieutenant approach: his tradition had knighted Zidane, Pirlo, Kaka and Lampard, and canonised Zola, Costa and Di Maria. Ancelotti knew who he was looking at.
There is something to Thiago that defies taste, rare at any rate in any field or discipline. He is, in something of a different understanding of the term, the footballing Nirvana. He is an avatar for those (slightly) younger fans riven with the angst of passing statistics, the corresponding ignorance of their taste also satisfied by his being small and Spanish. He is just as appealing to the footballing equivalent of what music critic Robert Christgau called the “hippy-manque undesirable”, Crosby Stills & Nash-era stand dwellers whose notion of footballing beauty had been refined through the cooling traditions of the Magyars through the 1970 Selecao, through Ajax to Milan and the modern Barcelona. Regardless of how the tactical vogue shifts, regardless of how football fans shift their preferences and prejudices accordingly, a player like Thiago will appeal to them all. Even Alex Ferguson, in his at times laughably hubristic autobiography, had to concede that Thiago was the only player from La Masia’s post-Xaviestessi crop who he thought could measure up to the Carrington-born-and-bred likes of Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck
Good God, Fergie.
Though he is now the Ancelotti-fied centrepiece of one of the world’s biggest clubs, he also commands a kind of mass-version of the underdog concern, owing to that season out injured at the start of his tenure in Bavaria, and sympathy for the weight of tradition he carried on his shoulders. And the truth is, though Bayern’s progress this season has been largely processional as could be expected even with the wild mercury of RB Leipzig briefly threatening to shake things up, Thiago has been the only player in the world’s only squad with a perfect 1-1 ratio of superstars-to-field-positions to actively improve under Ancelotti. He had the tag of a successor at 24; by the time of this article’s publishing, he will almost certainly have turned 26, with a mark of mastery. The more patient and more diagonal Guardiola seemed to benefit the squad profile; under Ancelotti’s supposedly more adaptive cosmopolitan template, and by the simple passing of time, the surrounding cinnabar has melted away and Thiago gleams more sharply than ever. What’s more, the jewel of his gifts have been transplanted from the glass display case into the middle of the blade; during two of Bayern’s three most supreme moments this season – the decisive defeat of Leipzig, and the liquidation of Arsenal at home – it was Thiago, not Robert Lewandowski or Robben or Alaba or poor Thomas Muller, who had been the decisive element. He did not mind over proceedings, or steer them in the manner of that master helmsman and team-mate Xabi Alonso. He shredded the teams in question.
The new tactical zeitgeist in European football is moving away from a philosophy that calls for possession monopoly, primarily because of the deep reserves of resources such an approach obliges for success, as well as the league philosophies accommodating for it. There was something in Jermaine Jenas’ evaluation of Chelsea’s performance away at Bournemouth towards the end of the 2016/17 season; though Chelsea had means to dominate traditionally and often had, they actually exerted their most control off the ball and in shape, with the channels exposed and an aggressive, and so progressive, heroic brand of defending providing their launchpad. Their notion of control was not, and often is not, relational to the ball, but to space. They are not alone in this; similar approaches to play have been sported over the last two or so seasons by Barcelona, forgoing their own diagonal intricacy of dynasty past in favour of middle-third defending that can turn over the ball to their front three. Midfielders have, as we suggested earlier when looking at Kanté, become a different kind of fulcrum, a hard centre, their job now to act as a gravitational nucleus to better orientate play out wide.
Thiago is not the world’s most progressive midfielder: that would probably be Naby Keïta, the only midfielder in the Bundesliga who dribbles more than the Spaniard, and whose numerical synchresis – he sees no shame in being a 6, an 8 or a 10 on queue – beggars belief at times. But Thiago is the most timeless, more fully a classical number 10 than the 6-8 axis he was mooted to replace at Barcelona; thrillingly unrefined enough when carrying the ball, and living between the lines more comfortably than perhaps any other such minded player currently active (respectfully excepting David Silva). When on the toppermost of form, his nirvana is likewise three-piece: what force he has he must’ve been christened with in San Pietro; his tendency towards the advance he must’ve inherited from old Mazinho; that delicate way he treats the three yard opening is his trait most Spanish. Thiago cares nothing for the economy of a game that wages itself primarily down the edges, on the fringes of play, carried by skilful widemen and marshalled by hardline centre-midfielders. Thiago, and any manager who uses him as such, plays the game the hard way, through the middle, where demands on touch, vision, decision, space interpretation (to borrow the newly maligned Thomas Muller’s phrase) are not demands, but law.
Fashion is the incubator of style; whether the present method of off-the-ball control passes into the aesthetic pantheon of the game is yet to be determined, as much by the further glory accrued by its proponents as anything else. Thiago Alcantara represents the proud giftedness that freely and unselfconsciously stands quite outside the collective historical process. It is almost macho; Thiago will control the game in the manner that is right, and he will get the ball to do so. He does not fear its demands. The admiring eyes that look his way for doing so tell the story; such style goes with command. Such style is timeless.