Thiago and Bayern: A Complicated Couple

Guardiola & Thiago

Treble-winning Bayern Munich have a lot of midfielders – and a lot of world-class midfielders, at that. So naturally, Pep Guardiola’s first two transfers at the Bavarian club would be two more top-notch midfielders. Perhaps fearing squad stagnation after the finest club season in German football, Pep chose to add Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze and Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara to a midfield that already includes Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martínez, Toni Kroos, Luis Gustavo, Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Xheridan Shaqiri.

If the transfer of Mario Götze was understandable – at least from the neutral’s perspective – the purchase of Thiago, a player many were predicting to be Xavi’s heir in the Barcelona midfield, is nothing if not perplexing. After publically expressing a desire to leave the Catalan club for more playing time, Thiago spent half of June courting Manchester United, only to choose Bayern at what seemed like the eleventh hour. While true that Pep seems to collect midfielders – this is after all, the same man who once fielded six central midfielders in a 2011 Super Cup win against Porto – 22M euros on another midfielder seems extravagant even for him.

But Pep Guardiola isn’t like other managers. He believes, more than any other manager in world football, in the power of possession and the strength of triangular passing. The Barcelona way, or tiki-taka as it’s commonly known, has at its roots, the Dutch philosophy of totaalvoetbal, or Total Football. Rinus Michels, the famous manager of both Ajax and The Netherlands who is credited with inventing the tactic of Total Football, had as his captain and pupil, the legendary Johan Cruyff. It was with Cruyff on the pitch, that Michels had seemingly another tactician, a player who understood and believed the manager’s philosophy almost as much as the manager himself. And thus it came as no surprise that when Cruyff moved to Barcelona to accept the Catalan managerial position, he found in Pep Guardiola, his mirror image. Pep became to Cruyff what Cruyff had previously been to Michels: that is, a philosophical mouthpiece in a player’s body. Fast-forward twelve years and we see Pep as manager, now using Xavi in the position he had previously taken up. In the nearly forty years that saw Michels’ Total Football evolved into Pep’s tiki-taka, one thing has remained constant: the manager has always had a player who understands more than any other, the coaching ideology and the importance of maintaining belief in that philosophy. Michels to Cruyff, Cruyff to Pep, Pep to Xavi and now at Bayern, Pep to . . . ?

And that is why Pep, already with what appeared to be the perfect midfield, bought another midfielder. In Thiago, he finds the new-Xavi – the player who understands the philosophy that can be so difficult to comprehend and adapt to. (For more on that last point just look at the struggles Cesc Fabregas has had trying to reintegrate himself into this system, even though he spent his early years at the famed La Masia learning the Barça way). It is interesting that Thiago claimed he wanted a transfer away from the Camp Nou in order to earn regular minutes – something that makes the move to Bayern and their already crowded midfield more than a bit curious. 

Working in Thiago’s favor however, are two factors: (1) he is already familiar with Pep, both from a tactical and training perspective; and (2) he can play in nearly any of the six forward positions in a 4-3-3 (with a false nine). Although it happened only once (Javier Mascherano), Pep’s system and his Barcelona reign became infamous for moving central midfielders to central defense. The reason for this switch is obvious: possession at +70% rates requires creativity and passing from every position on the pitch, including the central defenders. If there is a weakness in the current Bayern squad it may indeed be that the central defenders available to Pep in the upcoming season (Dante, Jerome Boateng, and Daniel van Buyton, and Jan Kirchhoff) are not as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they might need to be.

Not a problem, this, because at Pep’s disposal rests the 40M euro man, Javi Martínez – a player who routinely played in central defense at his previous club, Atheltic Bilbao. By moving Martínez into the back line (which is only “back” in numerical denotation, as the centre-backs in the Pep system sit as high as some defensive midfielders), Pep will have an empty midfield position. And while it might seem a waste of his talent to play Schweinsteiger in the deepest midfield role, as he isn’t especially equipped to beating defenders one-on-one (like Busquets isn’t) he might well be moved to the #6. That leaves the #8 (the role that Xavi played) or the #10 (surely the role Götze was bought to assume) open for Thiago. And so we have two players for one position: the incumbent, Kroos and the newcomer, Thiago.

Bayern Munich’s aim in the upcoming system is surely to equal Barcelona’s 2009 system when the club won an unprecedented six trophies. And while three of those are one-offs, the German club will face a long and arduous season, especially if Pep returns to his (very) high pressing tempo. Rotation will be a key factor throughout the year and it’s not unlikely that Thiago and Kroos will play in (and start) half of the team’s games.

A complicated case, Thiago represents everything Pep needs to win: technical skill, extensive tiki-taka training, and a philosophical understanding of the Pep Guardiola-system. He is, according to Pep himself, “the only player I wanted . . . it was him or no one.” Having left Barcelona for more playing time, it is clear that in Bayern, Thiago sees his footballing father and his regular starting minutes – if only it was as easy to see for the rest of us. 

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