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exclusive interview

Thiago Alcantara and the art of seeing what other players don’t

Bayern Munich midfielder sits down with Miguel Delaney to discuss leaving Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, never feeling pressure and avoiding ‘la locura’ against Chelsea

Monday 24 February 2020 14:30 GMT
‘I don’t feel pressure. It’s football. If you told me I had to operate on someone, it’s pressure’
‘I don’t feel pressure. It’s football. If you told me I had to operate on someone, it’s pressure’ (Getty)

As a player famous for delivering passes no one else can see, Thiago Alcantara is talking about what exactly he sees when he’s on the ball, “in the middle of the madness”. It is a view that must surely be all the more obscured amid the speed and intensity of a Champions League knock-out tie. Much like so many of Thiago’s passes, though, his explanation isn’t quite what you’re expecting.

“In the centre of the pitch, you don’t have the time to identify which player it is on your team,” the Bayern Munich playmaker explains. “If you don’t instantly get it through his movements, you may not know.

“So, before anything, you get a panorama of a match; where the spaces will be from where you are, and what players are around you. So it’s a mix of a panoramic view, and the knowledge of your team.

“It’s an instinct that comes from the position in central midfield, and knowing where to play the ball. From years of experience, it becomes second-nature.”

What follows is often a first-class delivery, like that recent outside-of-the-foot swerve against Borussia Dortmund, that Chelsea are going to have to be so alert to in the Champions League this week.

What really elevates Thiago’s elegance as a player, though, isn’t just this capacity for cutting a game open in a single moment. It is how he keeps his whole team so fluidly moving throughout a game.

The 28-year-old starts to talk about the concept of ‘pass appreciation’. That is when players know teammates so well that they also innately understand what speed and area of foot they prefer to receive the ball on. When all eleven players know each other and are in synch, it can prove exponentially beneficial for a team, because of how quick it makes everything.

Thiago, of course, tends to get this quicker than most.

“You have to understand who you’re giving the ball to, if he’s left-footed or right-footed, and secondly to know the move. If it’s a move where the defence is very high, and you’re going to open play, it has to be faster and inside the centre-half. It’s two things, you read the player, and read the play.

“I think for every team to understand that intensity of pass is essential. Apart from that, you don’t just give a pass for the sake of it. You give a pass specific to the game, and the play.”

Thiago has become a totem of the modern Bayern Munich (Getty)

That must be all the easier, say, when it’s to a forward like Robert Lewandowski?

“You don’t think of the name. You think of the player he is for who he is. So, you interpret it like a chess piece you have in front of you, that you know what way it can move.”

Again, that panoramic view. It makes Thiago’s vision all the more impressive since it is evidently an instant meld of Marcelo Bielsa-like spatial perception and specific knowledge.

Things are certainly looking very good for Thiago at Bayern. He has found form, the team has found form.

The two feel interconnected since Thiago is so central to how the side function as the pivot of the team. That role has occasionally been interrupted in his time at the club, either by unfortunate long-term injury or questionable short-term managerial decisions like that of former boss Nico Kovac. Thiago has nevertheless become a totem of the modern Bayern since signing for Pep Guardiola’s team over six years ago. It has become home, almost as much as Barcelona.

Thiago was lured to Bayern Munich by Pep Guardiola in 2013 (Getty)

“My son is Bavarian. He was born here, so you do feel some ties and roots here.

“More than an international club, it’s a family club. You can move about easily here, be friends with everyone that works here at Sabenerstrasse. It makes it feel like home.”

Comfortable as Thiago is in Munich, and talking about the club, you get the sense he’s much more comfortable just discussing how football works. He suddenly gets much more animated and involved, rapidly talking about intricacies of the game.

But just as he doesn’t completely see his home as Barcelona the city, he doesn’t see his role completely defined by Barcelona the club. That is perhaps curious, given Thiago was long held as the one that got away, the Xavi successor that left before his time. He seemed the perfect Guardiola signing – but that’s perhaps the point. Thiago is much more than just an academy prototype.

“My style is not only because of Barca. There is also the Brazilian idea of a pivot.

“Barca gives you the philosophy to understand the game of Barca. The rest, you pick up along the way.

“For me, there are so many variations in football. It’s not necessarily about controlling the game. It’s about controlling your action. It’s that your actions are well-coached, and executed in the best manner possible, against the opposition. That’s control. If it’s a long ball, it has to be in a controlled manner. You dominate a rival through execution. You do every play with the goal in view.

“That, to me, is control – that everything you have trained comes off.”

That is all the more pronounced in the Champions League, because a recent theme of the competition has been for games to go totally out of control. Thiago has been involved in a few of them, from two raucous ties against Real Madrid, to one of the first major comebacks: a 6-1 from 3-1 down against FC Porto in 2014-15.

The tie against Chelsea feels like it has some potential for this, given how attacking both sides are.

That promises to be enjoyable for anyone watching, but Thiago surprises in that regard, too. He doesn’t really enjoy playing in these games. He almost seems to feel they let down the level

“It shouldn’t happen that there can be so many goals,” he says, showing a little irritation. “It’s a knock-out. It’s about the little details. To concede an away goal is so dangerous. There shouldn’t be so many goals, because it’s a knock-out.

“I am not a big fan of those mad games. I’m more of a fan of the beautiful games, the exact games. It can be a 2-1, or a 4-3, but it’s controlled. Not mad. Because afterwards you’re there thinking ‘where were we in that moment’ You don’t remember.”

Thiago celebrates winning the Bundesliga in 2016 (Getty)

Thiago does recall what it’s like when “the madness” – “la locura”, in Spanish – engulfs one of those matches. It naturally happens before you even realise, and then means anything can happen.

“You’re just swept along with it. In that moment that goes out of control, you’re into the madness, la locura. Nothing is in control. It’s like you’re just living the game, maximum effort, but minimum control. That’s when you get these crazy scores you’re talking about: the 5-3s, or 5-4s.

“I’d rather do what Ajax did last season in the Champions League. That’s how I’d like to play. Ajax controlled all the games. I’d rather do that, than madness and find myself in the Champions League semi-final – because you know how you want to play.

“It’s a logical consequence of something, it’s coached. The confidence you need in football comes above all from how the team plays. It’s when you know every move – every automatism – so well you don’t have to think on the pitch.

“That’s how it should be.”

You can certainly hear the influence of Guardiola in Thiago. No manager values control more. No manager drills players more.

“Of all the coaches we had here, and Barca, he was the one with the most intensity, most concentration. You had the same tension training as playing. You’re attuned to learn and hone your game. With other coaches, training sessions can be a bit more light-hearted, but with Pep it’s always concentration.”

Thiago sounds like he could be of a similar vein when he eventually retires. It was Guardiola that lured him to Bayern in the first place, amid interest from Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson before he retired.

There goes one of the great career what-ifs, even as Thiago insists it was only ever Bayern he was going to. The midfielder could have gone to a basket-case United suffering one of the worst eras in their history. He instead went to a club enjoying the most success-laden era in its history – with one thing missing: that trophy they’re playing for on Tuesday, the Champions League.

He, predictably, doesn’t quite see it that way.

“I see it season by season. And right now I don’t have the league, the cup or the Champions. That’s my goal. It’s not that I’m missing it.”

So no pressure to finally win it?

“I don’t feel pressure. It’s football. If you told me I had to operate on someone, it’s pressure. But to play football, that’s not pressure.”

That’s just how he sees it.

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