People might think that I came to Bayern and knew the players immediately but no. You need time for that.
Those were the words of Pep Guardiola after his Bayern team recently smashed aside Arsenal 5-1 in the Champions League.
Pep was right, of course, broadly speaking; but on his Bavarian arrival in 2013 the Spanish super-coach purchased a player whose unique skillset he knew all too well: Thiago Alcantara.
I spoke to club about my concept and told them why I want Thiago,” said Guardiola prior to the signing. “He is the only player I want. It’ll be him or no one. We the need the special quality that Thiago brings.
That special quality is now consistently on show, and is arguably the reason why Bayern appear to have reached another level; the almost idealistic level which Guardiola has sought since taking over the German giants: “My desire, is to have 100% possession”.
Into his third Bundesliga season, Thiago is demonstrating the type of control and magisterial midfield dominance Pep envisaged the playmaker would bring upon his signing. That it has taken this long is down to the knee ligament tears he’s suffered, rather than any questions of adaptability or ability.
Now injury-free, the Spain midfielder is perhaps also benefitting from not having to share a monopoly over the ball with the likes of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle of the pitch; so much now flows through him.
Against Arsenal in both ties, Thiago looked a cut above the midfield opposition who couldn’t get near him, as he smoothly purred through any congestion to find space and always be available. One stat showed he completed 122 of 133 attempted passes – and for context, no Arsenal player attempted more than 45.
Ever the perfectionist, Guardiola was impressed, but still seeks an improvement, stating:
In important matches, there are players who might be afraid but Thiago is extraordinary in such matches. He was injured over the last two years and now, he is really fit.
But he needs to understand that with his skills, he has the possibility to be an even better player. There are times when he loses the ball without being pressured so he has to work on that. He has to interpret his game so that his passes can cause danger.
This sentiment was almost prophetically echoed back in 2013 when we at fantasista10 spoke exclusively to Rodolfo Borrell, the former La Masia coach who worked with the likes of Messi, Fabregas and, briefly, Thiago, revealing a conversation the two had shared – not once, but twice – about the risks in the young playmaker’s innate playing style, and the predicaments this could lead to should he ever leave Barcelona.
I said “Thiago, make sure, as much as possible, you succeed here and get into the first team of Barca, because of how you play – you are a great player to succeed in the Barca first team – but if you have to leave, depending where you go, you might have problems.”
Why do I say this? Because Thiago is a fantastic technician, fantastic view of the game, very risky sometimes in the game for the kind of passes he does. But when he’s in a side like Barca that dominates the game and have lots and lots of possession, and a great capacity to score goals, if you make one mistake or don’t run back too much as you don’t have this capacity, nothing will happen [to you]. But the same qualities in a team that that suffers more, I don’t think he would get away with the same things.
The things Borrell was referring to are the distinctive characteristics which Thiago displays whenever he plays – the kind of joyful features which remind us of a more innocent style, taken almost directly from the playground where football is played for fun.
The games I enjoy most are the ones I finish exhausted and with knocks, but having played,” says Thiago.
It’s just not a question of fight, you have to play. Football is a competition to see who’s the best, not a battle. It’s not a war. When it ends, we’re still alive. You want to win above all, but you want to enjoy playing a good pass, for example.
Sometimes you watch matches and think ‘neither team wants the ball’. It’s ugly. I’m definitely not [the same player], I’ve matured but it’s probably true that my idea is the same [as when I was a kid]: win, enjoy it. That’s still the joy of football for me: having the ball, touching it, passing, dribbling, scoring. Having the ball is fundamental.
That last sentence is the most vital part of a philosophy shared by both player and coach – a basic yet essential element of what Guardiola has preached time and again during his managerial reigns:
People say that ball possession might not be the most important thing but for me, it is the most important thing,” says Guardiola. “It’s the first step and then the second, third and fourth steps can come after. With the ball, you have more possibilities to create something and to concede fewer chances.
I have a lot of respect for my players and when they decided to become footballers, they wanted to play with the ball. It’s not only about running. It’s all about having the ball, playing and dealing with the ball. Because we have had the ball, we have scored a lot of goals and haven’t conceded a lot.
Guardiola’s search for perfection at Bayern seems to be edging ever closer now.
This is the best team of my era here,” he recently concluded.
With a fully fit and consistent Thiago in the side – the unflustered fantasista who chose to leave his ideological dream team in search of more playing time, only to join another (as surmised he would have to) – the synergy between two guardians of the ball is now coming to fruition and taking Bayern to the next level.