Last week, the Mirror’s Alan Nixon reported that incoming Manchester United manager David Moyes will make an audacious move for Barcelona youngster Thiago Alcantara by activating his £15million buy-out clause.
The Spaniard has been heavily linked with United over the past couple of weeks, having become frustrated with the lack of first-team opportunities at the Nou Camp.
What follows is a scouting report of Thiago and how he might not fit into Moyes’ plans at Old Trafford.
Being a La Masia graduate, Thiago has the Barcelona-DNA embedded in him.
In his entire professional career so far, Thiago has played in teams that like to press high up the pitch and his stamina allows him to maintain such a pressure on the opposition throughout the course of a match.
David Moyes, however, has never really put emphasis on ball-retention, and hence, Thiago might need time to adapt to a completely new approach in which he’ll need to sit back and be patient, rather aggressively press in the attacking third.
When we talk about his main attributes, Thiago is undoubtedly one of the best passers in Europe. The 22-year-old also has a wide vision and likes to dictate the tempo of the game. His awareness and understanding is a class above most of the players in the same age-bracket.
He always looks over his shoulders while receiving the ball, searching for open teammates or space and already thinking about his next move. Moreover, Thiago’s first touch is exemplary and enables him to get a few yards away from his marker.
His ball control is equally impressive. He gets dispossessed only 1.3 times per game, and even against physically strong player, he doesn’t lose his control.
Opposing teams often try to outnumber Thiago when he tries to directly run at them. The lad remains calm in such situations and plays a quick pass to one his open teammates to continue the flow of the attack.
The Spain international’s technique, ball control and vision are so developed that a considerable chunk of Thiago’s passes are one-touch passes.
When he is not looking to make a pass, Thiago produces attacking runs towards the final third.
He’s got ample pace and quick feet to torment the defenders. Many people compare him to Xavi Hernandez, but his willingness to get forward makes Thiago more of a hybrid between Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
How He Exactly Plays
Thiago’s favorite area to operate in is not ahead of the backline, but in the space between the opposing midfield and backline (or slightly ahead of the midfield)
He likes to receive the ball in that zone and from there, he either continues the flow of the game by playing quick one-touch passes to the attackers (mainly wingers) or he might make an attacking run on his own.
When he thinks the team is struggling to make any attacking progress from the defensive third, Thiago might drop deep to commence attacks. Thus, Thiago’s role can vary on where he gets the ball.
Sometimes, if he feels the centre of the park is too congested, the Spain U-21 captain may shift the play out wide.
Similarly, if he thinks a particular wing is overloaded with personnel, he switches the side of action. Thiago’s wonderful long ball skills allow him to excel in this avenue.
Thiago also likes optimal freedom on the pitch. He doesn’t want to play as a static deep-lying midfielder. Instead, he likes venturing all over the field to receive possession and distribute it effectively to keep the momentum going, as can be seen from his following two pass charts against Espanyol.
He usually stays away from the ‘action areas’ as his job is to present himself as a passing outlet for his teammates. If he spends too much time in these ‘action areas’, Thiago is likely to be marked and hence, his colleagues lose their field general.
Problem for fitting at United
Thiago operates best when he has a defensive midfielder playing behind him.
Many people believe he can play in place of Michael Carrick but the truth is Alcantara is a much more adventurous and attacking minded midfielder.
Moreover, he’s always played in a three-man midfield at Barcelona and Spain, with a midfielder behind him who gives Thiago the license to roam all over the pitch.
If Thiago takes up the Carrick role, due to his willingness to press and get forward, United will have no one to close down the space in front of the back-four.
I’ve used the following two ‘action areas’ graphs to highlight the massive difference between the two players.
Carrick spends most of the time sitting just in front of his defenders and rarely looks to exploit the space in between the lines.
On other hand, Thiago spends relatively much less time in the deep lying midfield role (as Alex Song was playing behind him) and looks more interested in playing in between the zones.
Now, the ‘other’ midfield role under David Moyes will be of the box-to-box midfielder, for which United are likely to buy Kevin Strootman.
As it is, Thiago doesn’t fill in over here either- he can supplement the attack, but with an average of just two defensive actions per match, the Spain international is clearly not a ball-winner.
What Thiago does is that he forms the chain between the two ends of the pitch. He can link Carrick with the wingers and the strikers. Moreover, he can also fall back to start attacks if Carrick is unable to do so. However, to accommodate Thiago, Untied will need to play a three-man midfield, something that could threaten Shinji Kagawa’s potential match time next term.
Frankly, Thiago will need ample time to adapt to a two-man midfield pivot and he’s not quite the kind of player who will suit Moyes’ direct attacking approach. He’s just someone who links up the loose strings creatively in the centre of the park and keep the game flowing.
What do you think about Manchester United’s interest in Thiago Alcântara?