Thiago’s role: A shift in thinking

July 21, 2013

The use of Thiago Alcântara as a defensive midfielder signals a further shift towards possession-based thinking. 

Pep on bus

Pep Guardiola has established a reputation as an innovator. On Saturday, in Bayern’s 4-0 drubbing of Hamburger SV in the Telekom Cup, the first radical moves unfolded. The European champions lined up in a 4-1-3-1-1 formation. Fascinatingly, Thiago played as a defensive midfielder.

Several points from the game merited study, but Thiago’s position intrigued the most. Fielding a 172-centimetre-tall playmaker as a lone defensive midfielder was a bold and counterintuitive move. It indicates a move away from the traditional ball-winners popularised by Claude Makelele.

HSV 0-4 Bayern line-up

Bayern’s line-up against HSV, Saturday 20 July, 2013

The defensive midfielder traditionally provides steel and security. But for possession-based teams, added passing ability is nothing less than a game-changer. At Barcelona, Guardiola had the rare privilege of coaching a player who does both. But Sergio Busquets has no equivalent. At Bayern, Guardiola has had to choose between silk and steel.

He didn’t have to choose silk. Steely Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo, 25, is a worthy member of the Seleção line-up. Yet Guardiola has made him available for transfer, and bought Thiago. (Javi Martínez could play there, but is arguably too slow on the ball for the role’s intended purpose.) The use of Thiago is unusual for a deep-lying playmaker, because most others have a battler next to them (such as Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira). Thiago follows the trend of Andrea Pirlo, and, somewhat less famously, Leon Britton.

Tactical advantages

As covered by this site before, technical defensive midfielders are a huge advantage. When playing out from the back, the defensive midfielder is always the opposition’s pressure point. He is often isolated, facing his own goal. Lose the ball and danger is imminent. With passing skills in that position, you give yourself a chance. Without it, anything other than long passes becomes suicidal.

That is why, in Guardiola’s search for dominance of possession, Thiago is so valuable. In possession, the transition between defence and midfield depends on him. He is the link; the player carrying the ball past the opponent’s first pressure point. An example occurred yesterday for Bayern’s third goal.

In possession further upfield, Thiago’s presence could also be decisive. In overloading the central midfield, the difference between three talented passers and four is vast. For Barça, the importance of Sergio Busquets steering play from deep is difficult to overstate. In Thiago, Guardiola has found a player who can do the same.

The real risk

Traditionalists may argue that Thiago’s presence presents a risk. He is too frail, he will lose challenges near the goal; the team will be weaker at set-pieces. In the context of Guardiola’s philosophy, that argument is almost worthless.

The reason is simple. The number of situations where Bayern play their way out will exceed those involving defensive challenges. The real risk is not losing a header, but to lose the ball in a dangerous position. As such, Thiago is a safer option than most other midfielders. Besides, knowing Guardiola, the defensive work may be limited. They probably won’t lose the ball anyway.

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Photo: Raul Roncero (Website:

Video: allas (Twitter: @allas4)


Greetings Sir.. it is fascinating to get your input on the subject.. I have a question.. Do you think Michael Carrick also plays a similar role to what Busquets, Pirlo, Britton and as you have mentioned, Thiago perform.. Also u have mentioned that Busquets has maybe the best one touch game.. but is he capable of beating one or two players and play a pass.. ? Also, what do you think seperates Busquets from Carrick..?

by Sriram on December 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm. #

Long post coming:

After watching some Bayern matches, I can’t say I recognize the thoroughly possessive “short ball” style of play we have seen in Barcelona the latter years. Of course, there has to be a period of transition. Nevertheless, Bayern still (for what I have seen) operates widely, seeking open areas, with the ball moving quickly across the field. Even though many might draw other conclusions from unquestionable statistics, I feel Bayern’s style still resembles the classic german ruthless direct type of football we know. I believe it’s their domestic dominance causing the high possession numbers.

And so over to Thiago. I concur with everyone praising Pep’s innovation, but the weaknesses are present. I am a sworn admirer of the modern agile deep-lying playmaker role, where the player has the additional ability of dribbling past one or two opponents, causing imbalance and room to strike the golden pass. The traditional, more static DLP (with Alonso as the best example) does not suffice, having today’s top level rapid ball play in mind. Thiago is on the other hand absolutely perfect for this role.

You say one might argue that Thiago’s presence presents a risk. I feel the risk is rather the lack of defensive fibres in the entirety of the midfield, not just Thiago. As we saw against Dortmund, Bayerns midfield was dramatically thin and unbalanced when losing the ball high up the pitch. That’s when Javi Martinez gets so important. So why isn’t he in the midfield mix? Without a holding midfielder to break up counter attacks, Bayern would be extremely vulnerable to the likes of for example Real Madrid and, as we have seen, Dortmund. I agree that Martinez in Thiago’s role would be bad, but I am rather questioning the presence of the ones in front of him. Moreover, I think there is a reason for the recent extreme spread of the 4-2-3-1 system. As you may have figured, that’s also what I am suggesting would be better. As mentioned in the comments, the situation would be entirely different had Bayern had a certain Sergio in their squad.

by Håkon Ohma on August 3, 2013 at 2:19 pm. #

I felt the same way too when I watched a few of Bayern’s preseason friendlies, however when I watched the Audi Cup Final vs Manchester City one could totally see the “tiki-taka”. Oh and their off the ball movement is amazing as well.

by looper on August 5, 2013 at 4:55 am. #

Thank you for a very intelligent comment. We both share an admiration for Thiago’s role. One way of understanding Guardiola’s plan is perhaps that he intends to dominate possession to such an extent that Martínez isn’t needed anyway. We can view it as a sliding scale: if Martínez plays, Bayern have less possession, but are more solid when losing it. Without him, Bayern will have to defend less, but be more vulnerable when they do. Whether playing him at centre-back makes Bayern too one-dimensional and fragile against stronger teams is of course a completely justifiable concern.

by Thore Haugstad on August 5, 2013 at 9:59 am. #

And there goes the first failure against their main rivals in Germany and even maybe Europe with Thiago as the holder, where he got a slap from Guardiola as well. lol

by Angel on July 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm. #

I wonder if there’s going to be some heavy rotation for this season because I honestly can’t imagine leaving Javi Martinez, Schweinsteiger, Alcantara, Goetze, Ribery, Robben, or Muller on the bench. Although I know that different games call for different system and players but there has to be some degree of consistency too. Either way, I’m very excited to see what kind of new things he has in store for this upcoming season.

by looper on July 26, 2013 at 11:43 pm. #

I’m sure there will be rotation. One interesting point not discussed in this article is how flexible Guardiola will be. He has the players to create a series of different, innovative systems. Will he do that, or simply stick to one formation? Hmm.

by Thore Haugstad on July 27, 2013 at 11:02 am. #

Maybe this was just an experiment in a barely meaningful game. Also, what do you mean Martinez is too slow on the ball? Busquets may not have an equivalent but Martinez comes very very close to him in technical terms, and is superior physically.

Another problem in my view is that Thiago has never played that role. He has always played up the field. For me it would be very risky to play with Thiago in that role against a powerful, physical, pacy, upper echolon team; especially one with active fowards or a foward destroyers.

by Angel on July 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm. #

I’d have to disagree over Javi Martínez. He’s good technically – no question – but Busquets is in a class of his own. His one-touch game is probably the best in the world. Not many can perform a similar task, but Thiago comes closer than Martínez.

As for Thiago’s position, I’d agree the new role may take time getting used to. I’m sure Guardiola is bold enough to follow through with it though.

by Thore Haugstad on July 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm. #

I agree with Thore. Busquets and Martinez are very different players and offer different things. Besides Martinez isn’t a true CDM anyways so Busquets obviously plays that position better. This does not mean that Busquets is necessarily better than Martinez because it all depends on the match itself. Thiago, Martinez, and Busquets are all unique and therefore they must be used accordingly.

by looper on July 26, 2013 at 11:58 pm. #

In the past Champions league Busquets passing completion rate was 92% while Martinez’s 88%. Obviously Busquets sees more of the ball, just by playing at Barca and is expected to do more of the link up play, while at Bayern Schweinsteiger sees more of the ball. Martinez however takes more touches in the opposition half and completes more long passes.

by Angel on July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm. #

A question, then: Which position will Schweinsteiger be at in this line up given above?
This format you explained certainly has advantages but like you said, Thiago is not Busquets. They will definitely need some strong play at defending the center in the critical matches of CL. Can they dominate in the same way against Barca with such a line up?

by isler on July 23, 2013 at 8:06 am. #

Good question. I’d love to answer it, but I honestly don’t know. Perhaps Pep is experimenting with Thiago there while Bastian is away. Both suit the role. As you say, perhaps Schweinsteiger could play it in more physical matches.

by Thore Haugstad on July 23, 2013 at 8:20 am. #

I don’t even think Bastian will have place annywhere, Pep seem’s to dislike that let me say diesel type of players, although Bastian is football genius, personally my best Bayern player last year. As of now, it is quite evident that Pep will play 4-1-X-X system, with Alcantara playing that sole role…. It sure is trendsetterly adventourus and I can’t wait to see it in action!

by Josip on July 25, 2013 at 8:46 pm. #

It’s true that Bastian isn’t the Guardiola type. Yet I cannot imagine any coach in the world benching him. He’s too good for it. And I doubt the Bayern board would like Germany’s perhaps best player sitting on the sidelines. That said, fitting him into the side won’t be easy.

by Thore Haugstad on July 26, 2013 at 11:51 am. #

If Guardiola follows the same system mentioned I doubt place for bastian. It will be very sad to see player like him on bench.
And can you please write an article on supercup giving tactical insight ( I couldn’t watch the match)

by huss on July 30, 2013 at 4:27 am. #