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Thiago or Nothing

He was supposed to be the next great Barcelona midfielder, and then he was supposed to be the center of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. Neither quite happened, but under Carlo Ancelotti, Thiago has become one of the best midfielders in the world.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When Pep Guardiola began his three-year spell at Bayern Munich in 2013, it was “Thiago oder nichts” — Thiago or nothing.

The midfielder was supposed to be the heir to pass-master Xavi’s throne, the fulcrum of the next generation of Barcelona’s midfield. But Guardiola had other ideas, and his first move in Bavaria was to steal the jewel of the Barcelona youth system.

Thiago cost just €20m, or two-thirds of a Marouane Fellaini, who David Moyes brought to Manchester United from Everton in the same window. Yet after reuniting with his former coach in Germany, the midfielder failed to live up to expectations. Plagued by injuries, Thiago missed almost the entirety of his first season, and then struggled to be a consistent presence throughout Guardiola’s final two years.

Now, Pep is with Manchester City, but the 25-year-old is finally flourishing in Germany. Free of injury, the player who was destined to lead Guardiola’s revolution at Bayern is instead continuing his legacy without him. On a squad of superstars, Thiago is the center of the system. Without him, as we saw in Tuesday’s loss to Hoffenheim, Bayern ceases to be Bayern.

In Munich, the transition to life after Pep hasn’t been all roses. They’ve led the Bundesliga table since day one, they’re in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and they’ve lost only twice, but poor performances have been a cause for concern at a club that demands more than just results.

Under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have adopted a more direct approach in possession, with less of the Guardiola-instituted structured buildup to their play. While they’re still dominating domestic play, much of the squad has looked lost amid the drastic change in playing style. In many games, the team seems to lack the distinct control that they displayed under Guardiola. Many of last season’s blowouts have turned to final-minute victories against the likes of 17th-place Ingolstadt.

Thiago is the one who holds it all together, and Bayern have approached their previous heights when he’s been at his best. In their 3–0 win over second-place RB Leipzig back in December, the midfielder unlocked Leipzig’s dangerous press through evasive movements behind their midfield line. From the same position in attacking midfield, he provided the link through Arsenal’s typically noncompact shape during last month’s Champions League tie.

Much like the other bite-sized Barcelona midfielders before him, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Thiago uses his tiny stature to his advantage. His compact build gives him a low center of gravity, and with that comes great balance and agility.

To go along with those natural gifts, Thiago’s foot skills are as good as any La Masia graduate’s. He’s a competent, if slightly unrefined, dribbler who can navigate the tightest of Bundesliga defenses and, out of all the central midfielders in Germany’s top division, only Naby Keïta dribbles more frequently. For a player in the middle of the pitch, dribbling can be an incredibly useful tool to break lines of defense and create space for a killer pass.

Speaking of passing, Thiago may be the best distributor in the world right now. His excellent and adaptable technique gives him a wide range of unpredictable passes to choose from. One of his signatures is the measured, chipped through ball over a deep defensive line. It’s also one of the hardest passes to make in the final third, given the lack of space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper.

Beyond his balance and ball skills, what’s most striking about watching Thiago play is how his head is always swiveling back and forth. It’s like he’s watching game tape during the game, as he’s in constant observation of the 19 other outfield players, interpreting the space and structures to guide his own positioning. Since having the ball at his feet is second nature, he’s able to focus his thinking elsewhere.

From game to game, his role within the team might change. When playing deeper, he excels at bringing the ball out of his own half and helping prepare his team for the final third. That comes in the form of direct passes onto the path of a runner or shorter passes and dribbles to break an oncoming press. When Thiago’s the team’s attacking midfielder, his movement unlocks defenses and binds his teammates into a connected attack. His constant scanning is the groundwork for his off-the-ball runs, as he’s always on watch to see where gaps might open up next. Now that Bayern are less structured under Ancelotti, Thiago’s adaptability makes him crucial to the team’s balance.

He plays the stereotypical role of the “midfield general”; you can often see him directly instructing the ball carrier on where to play their pass. But there’s also a distinct playfulness about Thiago’s game that we don’t typically see from central midfielders. It occasionally leads to mistakes …

… but more often than not, it works out. There’s an argument to be had about whether he’s the best central midfielder in the world, but he’s certainly the best to watch.

And yes, in case you were wondering, Thiago also puts in his defensive work, leading the Bundesliga in overall output. He intercepts the ball far more than any other player, and that’s despite his team having a dominant 65 percent share of the ball. Given that Bayern’s opponents are often penned back within their own half, Thiago’s ability to anticipate counterattacks is vital in maintaining a firm grasp on the game.

In contrast to his predecessor, Ancelotti takes more of a laissez-faire approach to his side’s shape, and the players’ off-the-ball activity isn’t as constrained. Their attack is more chaotic due to the lack of guidance, and although this suits some players, such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, whose direct attacking style isn’t as confined as before, the team is less cohesive as a whole.

Thiago, too, has flourished under Ancelotti, as the deficits of this Bayern team has brought the midfielder’s talents to the forefront. The brainchild of Guardiola’s football has been required to correct the faults of Bayern’s attack this season. Now that his intuitive movement isn’t confined by the regimented approach of his former coach, he’s free to create triangles where necessary and link players who would otherwise be isolated.

With Thiago at the height of his powers, his old club must be wondering how they ever let him go. Barcelona’s midfield has deteriorated: Holding midfielder Sergio Busquets has been asked to play an unusual role higher up the field, and the team is still reliant on the soon-to-be-33-year-old Andres Iniesta, with no replacement in sight.

Bayern still have their issues to iron out, too, but Ancelotti shouldn’t be worried about his midfield. “Thiago or nothing” turned out to be true.