Thiago 2019/20 – scout report
When Pep Guardiola came to Bayern Munich in 2013, he inherited an immensely talented squad that had just won the treble. Despite all of this talent, Guardiola had one major request when considering transfers: Thiago oder nichts. Thiago or nothing. While initially destined to replace Xavi at Barcelona, Thiago was brought in to help Guardiola secure the midfield, but he struggled mightily, with injuries resulting in him not really playing a full season until his third year at the club. While his initial transfer did not yield the immediate results, Guardiola’s insistence upon the Spaniard’s arrival has paid huge dividends for the Bavarian club, with Thiago becoming an important part of Bayern’s seven consecutive Bundesliga titles. His role this year has become even more important, with Thiago playing the fifth-most minutes of any player this season at Bayern.
This tactical analysis will provide a scout report on Thiago at Bayern Munich. The analysis will examine the tactics used by Hansi Flick to get the best performance out of Thiago on a consistent basis, looking to better understand how he has contributed to Bayern’s first-place position in the Bundesliga table.
Playing out of pressure
Thiago’s ability to play the ball out of pressure and find a teammate make him an enormous strength on the field, as this skill ensures that Bayern are able to maintain possession, even when opponents are circling. Early on in Bayern’s match against RB Leipzig, Thiago was able to get Bayern out of a tough situation due to his ability to recognise pressure and find a solution to escape it.
Just 38 seconds into the match, Leipzig had put Bayern under immense pressure, with Thiago intercepting a pass. As Leipzig began to counter-press and collapse on him, Thiago picked his head up to scan for options. Instead of clearing the ball out of the immediate pressure, Thiago was able to find Leon Goretzka, who was open in space. This allowed Bayern to progress forward because of all the men that Leipzig had committed to pressing Thiago. Instead of losing the ball in a dangerous space or turning it over through a clearance, Thiago picked out an open teammate who had a lot of space to run into, and Bayern were clear to progress up the pitch.
Later in the match, Leipzig were able to counter-press and apply pressure on Thiago and his young teammate, Alphonso Davies. Some miscommunication between Davies and Thiago put Bayern in a dangerous position that could have easily resulted in a loss of possession.
Thiago was in possession of the ball after Davies’ first touch seemed to be halfway between a pass and a trap. Davies continued towards the ball, nearly running into Thiago in the process. As this occurred, RB Leipzig players collapsed on the two, recognising that this was a perfect point for Bayern to lose possession. Thiago demonstrated his wonderful ability to recognise pressure yet again, taking his first touch away from his own teammate, and then playing a pass back to Manuel Neuer. While most midfielders would have panicked and either lost possession or cleared the ball, Thiago once again found an open teammate who could both maintain Bayern’s possession while also having a better view of the pitch to progress the play.
While able to play out of pressure cooly, Thiago also functions as almost a pressure release when supporting his attacking teammates. He is often found trailing behind the play by a couple of metres, not because he is slow or tired, but rather because he is able to help his Bayern teammates when their attack slows or is stopped.
In the image above, Thiago, marked with the green, followed behind a surging Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka. While Bayern’s first instinct was to move forward and attack the space that Leipzig made available to them, if Gnabry or Goretzka ran into any trouble, Thiago is behind them, almost in the base of a triangle, for them to lay the ball off to if they run into defenders. His primary role is not to create attacking movements consistently in transitions, but rather to provide an option for his teammates if they run into trouble.
Positioning of his body
Thiago grew up playing in Barcelona’s La Masia, the world-renowned training academy. When you watch him play, it is clear that his ability to recognise space and position himself accordingly allows him to create a little bit more time on the ball, allowing him to recognise and make better decisions for his team. The first two movements he executes consistently have to do with how he positions his own body.
With what is shown in the image, Thiago would be able to play the ball into the yellow box, or send the ball up the pitch on the same side, as he does not have the ability to play a pass behind him that he cannot see (no player can do this). He wouldn’t be able to see it, nor would his body allow him to generate enough power to play a precise pass there. However, Thiago executes the full turn depicted by the arrow, and he finds himself facing his defender. Because of this simple, subtle movement, Thiago is now in control of the 1v1 he found himself in. Also because of this movement, he now has the entire field as a passing option. This marginal gain allows him to distribute the ball more freely and create more threatening options for Bayern going forward.
His body positioning also allows him to disguise his passes, which make it more difficult for defenders to predict where the ball is going. An easy way for defenders to predict where a pass will be made is to look at a player’s hips; the hips usually suggest the direction of potential movements and passes because in order to play a pass through with enough pace on it, most player’s hips usually need to be facing the same direction as the pass.
Here, Thiago dribbled towards the touchline, his hips aimed at the very touchline at which he was dribbling. The likely passing options that are likely for him to make are marked in yellow. This caused the two Leipzig defenders, Timo Werner and Konrad Laimer, to collapse on him in an attempt to win the ball. As they collapsed, Thiago opted for the green pass, which broke two lines of pressure and found an open Thomas Müller higher up the pitch. By disguising his pass with the shape of his body, Thiago is able to lull opponents into a sense of safety before executing vertical passes that can often lead to opportunities for Bayern Munich.
Positioning in relation to teammates & opponents
While being able to effectively move his body to create space and time for better ball distribution, Thiago is also a master at positioning himself in the correct space in order to support teammates and manipulate opponents. The first image comes from the middle of the first half in the match against Leipzig.
As Bayern moved the ball from the left side of the pitch to the right, Leipzig responded accordingly, shifting their players over. Thiago, who was part of the build-up on the left side, followed the play a little slower, disappearing from the minds of the Leipzig defenders. As soon as Goretzka laid the ball off to Müller, Thiago found himself in an enormous amount of space. From this position, his options were limitless: he could dribble then pass, dribble then shoot, pass immediately, or lay the ball off to one of his defenders if he felt like it. Amazingly, Thiago didn’t receive the ball in this situation, despite doing a great job at finding space his opponents had clearly vacated.
While the space available for him is not always as large as the photo, Thiago does well to adjust his positioning with a few steps in order to create room to play.
Here, the difference in his positioning was again small, but that small difference, which would be considered a marginal gain, allowed Thiago to put his teammate in a dangerous 1v1 situation inside the penalty area. In the image above, Thiago’s original positioning is shown. He was too close to the Leipzig defender, who could have easily slid over to defend if Thiago received the ball at his feet. Instead, Thiago took two steps away from the play towards all that open space while opening up his hips in the process, which allowed him to receive the ball further away from the defender and have all potential passing options available to him. While the yellow distance in the image is not significantly farther than the red, it’s far enough away for Thiago to have time to pick his head up and play a pass to Serge Gnabry, who had created space away from his defender but was unable to properly curl the ball into the net.
Breaking lines through passing and dribbling
Thiago’s ability to break lines of defence become incredibly useful for Bayern Munich, as most teams often tend to sit deeper against them and defend more frequently. This requires Bayern to have players that can break down an opponent with quick, incisive passing. It comes as no surprise that Thiago has played so frequently this season, as both his passing and dribbling allow the ball to progress through opponents’ defence.
Bayern’s best chance against RB Leipzig started with a quick vertical pass from Thiago.
After receiving the ball from his centre-back, Thiago turned his hips, again facing the touchline. Once again, the shape of his body made it seem like he would execute one of those passing options in yellow. Instead, he played the vertical pass to Gortezka, who was checking into the available space. Goretzka did well to use his first touch to play a quick wall pass to Robert Lewandowski, but Goretzka was unable to finish the chance after receiving the ball back from Lewandowski.
While breaking lines of defensive pressure with a pass is an important skill for any midfielder to have, Thiago also possesses the ability to do so with a dribble, which can cause even more problems for defenders. This causes more problems because it means that the man on the ball is attracting more attention from a second line of defence, which means more space is opening up, and more opportunities to score are probable.
Against Leipzig, Thiago knew that defenders would be pressing consistently, and he used this manoeuvre multiple times to break their defensive lines. As the ball was played to him, Thiago would wait until the last second to plant his foot and cut forward into the space that was made available by the collapsing defenders. With his first touch, all three defensive players on the red line were eliminated from play. In front of him, Philippe Coutinho and Lewandowski were occupying the two defenders, meaning that the defenders had a choice: step to Thiago and leave their mark or allow Thiago to dribble at them. In this instance, Thiago’s decision was made too soon as he tried to slot Coutinho through on goal before any defender was forced to make a decision.
While Thiago’s current contract expires next summer, it’s no surprise that Bayern Munich have moved to sign an extension, with the rumour being that he’ll remain in Munich until the end of 2022/23 season. His contributions to the club have contributed to Bayern’s march up the table after their slow start, where they now sit four points ahead of rivals Borussia Dortmund. Despite not playing a large role in Bayern’s attack, Thiago’s contributions allow the team to maintain possession and continue to overwhelm opponents when Bayern are on the ball. Despite Guardiola not being able to get the most out of him during his tenure, “Thiago oder nichts” was absolutely crucial for Bayern Munich’s excellent play this season.