Bayern Munich’s midfield magician Thiago Alcântara will be back on the pitch making glorious passes for Bayern Munich soon. The team played well but he has class. What are the changes that might happen?
More stability in midfield
This does not mean to imply that the midfield has not been stable in Thiago’s absence. For the most part, it has held up quite well. Jupp Heynckes has mostly ran a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 while Thiago was injured, so it was business as usual. Javi Martínez, James Rodríguez, and Arturo Vidal were the normal starting midfielders. They added a decent amount of defensive effort and overall stability.
While they all did their part, Thiago has more experience and is a class above as a creative central midfielder for Bayern. Even though others have been able to perform well in that position, none of them have ever been considered the best in the world in that position aside from Thiago.
Thiago will also bring some defensive stability. So far in the Bundesliga, he has averaged 2.8 tackles per game whereas James has managed 1.7 per game. Thiago also averages 1.8 interceptions as opposed to James’s 0.7 per game. I could keep going, but you get the idea.
While there can be no doubt that James Rodríguez has been world-class as a central midfielder, it is not his natural position and Thiago simply performs better there.
However, that does not mean that because Thiago is back James will not have an important role to play on the team.
James further up the pitch
One cannot help but wonder if Zinédine Zidane is watching how James Rodríguez is playing right now and regretting his decision not to keep the Colombian international.
James was a player who has a lot of things said about him. I personally recall many saying after he was signed that he was “one-dimensional” and seeing claims that the modern game had moved past a player who could only properly function as a #10.
Ignoring the fact that James has spent much of his career as a winger, one has to applaud Jupp Heynckes for doing what coaches do—coaching and improving players. He has completely added a new dimension to James’s overall game, and the Colombian can now play as a deep-lying playmaker.
With the return of Thiago, he will no longer have to and Bayern can finally play him in his preferred position and where he will likely have the most impact—up front as a #10 or as an attacking midfielder.
James has had a fantastic impact so far, and has managed three goals and six assists so far in the Bundesliga. His impact in terms of goals has been set back slightly because of the deeper role he has had to play while Thiago was out injured. With no.6 back in the squad, James can move further up the pitch to combine with Robert Lewandowski, Kingsley Coman, and Thomas Müller in a potentially more lethal way.
More options in rotation
This might not sound like a problem Bayern has, but it is. All you really need to do is look at the players on the bench for Bayern’s game against Mainz. In case you forgot, do not worry because I did too and needed to look it up. The players on the bench were Tom Starke, David Alaba, Niklas Süle, Joshua Kimmich, Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski, and Kingsley Coman.
Aside from Kimmich who is officially a right-back, there are no natural midfielders there. (The Leon Goretzka signing makes more and more sense, too.) For a team that is so reliant on their central midfield, Bayern clearly were in need of some depth in that position given that so many players were injured or not fully at match fitness.
Many talk about the depth Bayern has at central midfield, and while the bench is deep there are also many players at Bayern who are regrettably injury prone. (Sadly, this does include Thiago.) While Thiago’s health can be somewhat suspect, he can provide some much needed relief to players who might need a rest or provide cover when someone gets injured.
Thiago is a player who can play virtually any position in central midfield. He is a world-class central midfielder, attacking midfielder and deep-lying playmaker. While is almost surely a guaranteed starter, he can rest and rotate with the likes of James, Javi, and Vidal to maintain fitness and give players (including himself) a rest when needed.
An added spark
One of my biggest criticisms of Bayern Munich over the last few seasons is their reliance on Thiago for creativity in the final third of the pitch, down the middle. When injuries and spells of poor form would happen on the wings, sometimes he was the only player who could create that extra spark of magic needed.
To see this in action, all you need to do is watch the first leg of Real Madrid against Bayern in the Champions League final last season. Casemiro stuck to Thiago like glue, effectively keeping him out of the game. Bayern seemed completely toothless.
This has been somewhat remedied by the signing of James Rodríguez and the excellent form of players like Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich, and sometimes Thomas Müller. The Raumdeuter has sneakily managed seven assists this season. Still, it helps to have the ever reliant Thiago back to make those special passes or dribbles that can create something out of nothing.
The best part about Thiago coming back is that it will be much harder for teams to prepare for how to shut down Bayern Munich. If they decide to focus their efforts on Thiago to keep him out of a game, then Bayern can fall back on James to be the primary playmaker or start creating chances from the wings through overlapping runs. We now know that especially Coman and Kimmich are dangerous on the wings, and David Alaba is returning back to form.
Thiago will not only give Bayern that extra added spark, but he can be the spark that ignites a flame for Bayern and bring their football to the next level.