Player Focus: Thiago Alcántara - The Rightful Heir to Xavi's Throne
It is rare for a youngster to feature with much regularity at the various youth levels for their country and go on to be a real success for the full international side. James Milner leads England's Under-21 caps chart and the next three are Tom Huddlestone, Fabrice Muamba and Michael Mancienne. Muamba is of course a special case, but none of the above are likely to ever set the world alight for the Three Lions. For Spain, meanwhile, Iker Muniain has the most youth appearances and he has only 1 more than Santi Denia, the Atlético Madrid centre-back who went on to win just two full caps despite featuring 27 times for the Under-21 side.
The common theme here is an obvious and understandable one; these players were good enough to play at the lower levels but have - or had - superior players ahead of them in the pecking order. For some, though, like Barcelona's Xavi Hernández, this means a wait until later in your career to consolidate a place in the first team. For others, like Thiago Alcántara, less patience is necessary.
Set on playing for Spain despite his Brazilian heritage and being born in Italy, Thiago is hoping to fulfil the billing he has been given as the latest candidate to succeed Xavi as Barcelona and Spain's deep-lying pass-master. Thiago Motta, Mikel Arteta and Cesc Fàbregas have all become fantastic footballers, but none - even Fàbregas - can genuinely claim to have reached the level of status Xavi boasts. Despite becoming the latest La Masia youth product to depart the Nou Camp in the summer, Thiago Alcántara is looking more and more an adequate heir to Xavi's throne.
As he proved last night for Spain while Xavi sat uninvolved on the bench, he is capable of controlling matches against the world's best; he attempted 115 passes - a full 26 more than any other player - and maintained 94% success. The main worry, having glanced at these stats in isolation, would be that Thiago was making passes in unthreatening areas. Not so, however; the 22-year-old found a teammate in the final third more times (42) than any teammate and as often as Italy managed as whole team.
For a number of years now, Thiago has been teetering on the peripheries of absolute top level football and that has almost solely been a consequence of the quality of player has has been attempting to overhaul for both club and country. At Barcelona there was little hope of ousting Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta even before they re-signed Fàbregas, and all four, along with Xabi Alonso and Javi Martínez provided an impenetrable wall blocking his path into Spain's midfield.
He thus played at last summer's European Under-21 Championships and to say he shone is an understatement. He was WhoScored's player of the tournament, with an average rating of 8.36 as he led Spain to glory, capping off the competition with a hat-trick in the final. He completed 395 of his 424 pass attempts (93.2%) and made clear to anyone that had previously doubted; he was way past being ready for the step up. Less than a month after the end of Euro 2013, he had been signed by the best team on the planet, Bayern Munich, led by none other than Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola had given Thiago his debut at Barcelona when he was just 18 years of age and over the course of his next 3 years at the club, continued to blood his best young star. He started over half (20) of the league games in Pep's final season in Catalonia, also making 7 appearances in a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League, including playing in the semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge. After the frequency with which he featured dropped in Tito Vilanova's title-winning season, Thiago decided to move elsewhere, and Barcelona have been made to regret it since.
Bayern's midfield would be one of the most difficult to break into but Thiago has quickly become a key component of it. After injury interrupted his first half-season in Germany, he has found a way back into the team and is now integral to a side that look wholly likely to retain each trophy they won in achieving a treble last season. So extreme has been his return to form, that since the turn of the year, Thiago is the top rated player in Europe's top 5 leagues (8.71), ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.
Thiago is a versatile, agile and hard-working central midfielder, and having played in 4 different positions he has shown just how many strings there are to his bow, which he exhibited to their full in a 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt last month. A product of La Masia, it is little surprise that he is so comfortable on the ball, and he broke a Bundesliga record when he had 187 touches and completed an incredible 149 passes. In that game, when Bayern were so dominant in possession (72%), Thiago still excelled off the ball, making a combined total of 8 tackles and interceptions - 3 more than any teammate. There has only been 1 instance of a Bayern player making more in a Bundesliga game this season, when Diego Contento made 11 at Freiburg. Comparatively, however, he made 100 fewer passes than Thiago did against Frankfurt.
There is yet more to him, though. Not content to sit at the base of midfield and dictate play, Thiago goes off in search of the ball, always available and giving an option to his teammates. He is fantastically adept working the ball past a player with a give-and-go or a quick change of direction, having also completed 4.7 successful dribbles per game, the fifth most of all players in the top 5 European leagues.
Goals might be slightly lacking from his game, but he has proved that when he is given license to attack he can certainly do so effectively, with a goal in his only appearance as a no. 10 and a goal and an assist to turn the game on its head when his side needed him most, a goal down at Stuttgart with 15 minutes to play. Still so young, Thiago is more than happy to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and take responsibility.
So, as we enter the final part of his first season outside Spain, there are winners and losers from his move to the Bundesliga. On an international level, one can only wonder how good Brazil might be if they had Thiago this summer (and Diego Costa, too). Meanwhile, Bayern are sitting pretty atop the league, on a 15-match winning streak, while Barcelona continue their three way battle for La Liga. Who knows how much longer Xavi's career will go on at the highest level, and the Catalonians should be tearing their hair out at the fact that they ever let him go. They can only hope that the affinity Thiago feels for Spain that made his choose them over Brazil may also persuade him to return to the Nou Camp at some point in the future.http://www.whoscored.com/Articles/-z7-j ... vis-Throne