Bayern Munich officially confirmed the signing of Thiago Alcântara from Barcelona for an initial fee thought to be around €22 million. Earlier this month, Thiago was all set to join Manchester united until out of the blue Pep Guardiola boldly stated, “I want Thiago. I have asked Rummenigge and Matthias Summer to get him. It’ll be him or no one. We have many players but we need the special quality that Thiago Alcantara brings.” Is this a statement that sums up Guardiola’s innocent intentions? Or is Thiago’s arrival a subliminal warning signal to other midfielders at the club?
The Bavarian club are coming off the back of a historic treble, and key to this achievement was a midfield that was second to none, not only in Germany but in the entire European continent. So wouldn’t altering an already majestic midfield be an act of foolishness? Enis Koylu, a sports journalist, claims that Thiago’s arrival would upset the balance of his new club and serve as a snub for Mario Gotze, another new signing at Bayern Munich. But again no one, not even Guardiola himself, said that Thiago was bought to take the place of any of the club’s established internationals. “Gotze is a superb player, but I need Thiago” were Pep’s exact words, a clear indication of his acknowledgment of Gotze’s qualities. Then where is the logic in purchasing Thiago?
What is certain about Bayern’s upcoming season is that they will play more than 50 games. German Super Cup, European Super Cup, Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, Champions League, and Club World Cup are the competitions that Bayern will try harder than usual to either retain or reclaim. In order to challenge for all titles and have a fit squad at decisive moments of the next campaign, the German Champions will need a team made up of in-shape winners and fighters, whether a starter or a substitute, and Thiago’s signature serves this purpose. His qualities would surely come in handy.
Arrigo Sacchi, mastermind of the Milan side that dominated the late 1980s, once said that the next tactical revolution in the game would be the conversion of the whole pitch into a midfield area, in addition to the elimination of specialists. What does this imply? This means that teams would have the luxury of having defensive midfielders playing as defenders and attacking midfielders playing as strikers. They would also still function as midfielders, passing the ball around quickly, closing down space, and playing a high tempo game.
Back to our day, Guardiola has certainly upheld Sacchi’s saying and put his words into practice by converting defense and attack into a midfield. Guardiola’s football simply relies on midfielders. At Barcelona, he had Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Busquets, Dos Santos, and Mascherano, and no one complained of not playing as some are implying will happen at Bayern. With proper rotation and balanced motivation, all players can get a chance to prove their worth. The Catalan manager played Mascherano as a defender, Iniesta as a winger and Fabregas as a striker, just as Sacchi expected. He turned his squad into midfielders capable of playing anywhere and doing anything - pass, press, attack, and defend - unlike specialized players.
In the majority of his pre-season games, Guardiola played a 4-1-4-1 system. If he ends up relying on this system next season, that would mean he will be depending on one defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, and maybe a false 9. That is four midfielders on the pitch at the same time doing different tasks but still acting as midfielders. Bayern now have Kroos, Martinez, Schweinsteiger, Gotze, Gustavo, Thiago, Emre Can, and Hojbjerg, which means 8 players should fill 3-4 positions (depending on whether he plays with a midfielder as a false 9, or with a striker) in over 50 games. Is that midfield still overcrowded? Isn’t such competition healthy for a team playing for major trophies?
In football, some players seek money, others more playing time, while a big portion of players hunt for glory, whether it is single such as the Ballon D’or or collective such as a major tournament. When a player reaches a place in his career where nothing matters more than holding a Champions League title, achieving a historic treble or even a double, they would most definitely, and willingly, sacrifice certain things such as more minutes on the field. In small teams, it’s more important to sustain a certain balance in the squad, between achieving mediocre targets and having a satisfied team. Meanwhile, in bigger teams, the most important thing is the collective achievements, realized through having a sufficient number of world-class players capable of fairly competing to win a starting place.
Guardiola doesn’t rely on one system only, he always experiments. “Javier Martinez can play at center-back, he played very well there with Athletic,” stated a confident Guardiola. Such an alteration would definitely free up a spot in midfield. Robben, Ribery, Muller, Shaqiri, and maybe even Gotze will challenge for a spot on the two wings. What is certain is that Guardiola is unpredictable when it comes to squad selection, and what is even more certain is that a manager of Pep’s caliber will relish seeing his outstanding players battle it out for a starting spot.
After all, in four years with Barcelona, he has never played the same team twice in a row. That is because he makes sure to make the most out of every talent in his squad, be it through player rotation, positional interchange or tactical shifts. Options are what Guardiola seeks, and Thiago’s arrival gives him exactly that. In any given team, under any given manager’s guidance, abundance in players at a certain position might cause problems such as dissatisfaction and disillusionment. But in a team such as Bayern Munich and under Pep’s guidance, the wealth in talents is going to be more than welcome.
Written by Hassan Chakroun