Devil's advocate: Will Thiago Alcantara really improve Manchester United's midfield?
Reports in the British media indicate that the long-drawn transfer saga involving the triumvirate of Thiago Alcantara, his parent club FC Barcelona, and suitors Manchester United is finally drawing to a close.
The transfer fee is said to be around the £17m, with his release clause having dropped from £80m after he failed to be involved in a stipulated number of minutes over the previous season for Barcelona.
And make no mistake about it, much has been made of Thiago by the British media, and they have waxed lyrical about the talents of the 22-year old Spanish U21 international, mostly on the back of his outstanding performances in the recently concluded UEFA European U21 Championships, scoring a hattrick in the finals, as Spain won 4-2.
And yet, will Thiago’s departure from Barcelona to Manchester United impact either club as much as it has been made to sound?
Thiago Alcantara is looked upon highly at Barcelona, by both his teammates and the club management, and he is undeniably talented, so much so that he has been projected as “the next Xavi”.
But, that should be put to rest as fast as possible. Players eulogised as “the next someone” are in no shortage, and the fuss about Thiago is premature to say the least. It is highly unprofessional and short-sighted to judge a player’s capability to become one of the best on the basis of a single tournament, against youth players.
Thiago made his foray into the Barcelona first team in the 2011-12 season, under Pep Guardiola, where he would often fill in for a missing Xavi or Iniesta, and his teamwork with Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi initially flourished, and extend La Masia’s standing as the greatest youth system in the world. But then, problems began to creep in. Thiago was just not ready for regular first team action, and his game on the pitch is exceedingly similar to his apparent attitude off it, primarily characterised by his impatience.
Given that few clubs in European football give as much importance and opportunity to their youth players as Barcelona do, it would be naive on Thiago’s part to clamour for a transfer so early on in his career. Current midfield maestros, Xavi and Iniesta, were made to wait for their turn, precocious though their talent was.
Those years of patience have only served them well, enhancing their overall game, and Thiago would be wise to follow suit as his game still teems with flaws. First off, it is frustrating to watch Thiago play for Barcelona at times. Though he has undeniably sharp eye for a pass, and a regular scoring ability, his impatience on the ball would often break down the famed Barcelona tiki-taka.
He often chooses the fancier through-pass or chipped pass than simply moving the ball across to a player beside him. The other flaw in Thiago’s game, is his hesitancy in position. Even if his intended movement may create a goal-scoring opportunity, he hesitates far too much at times, taking his own sweet few seconds to carve out a move.
Inevitably, he is hounded off the ball, and the move has to begin again. La Liga is played at a far more relaxed tempo than the English Premier League, and Thiago would be made to suffer in the latter, especially taking into consideration his average upper-body strength.
This brings me to how his transfer will benefit – or affect – United. While he will bring a lot of creativity to the team, something missing since Paul Scholes’ pomp, it will be a quandary as to he where he best fits in.
Last season, Sir Alex Ferguson played two deep-lying midfielders – mostly Cleverley and Carrick, with either Rooney, or Shinji Kagawa operating behind Robin Van Persie.
Thiago would be most comfortable in a deeper role (much like the one he occupied in the U21 Championships) , playing as a traditional playmaker alongside Michael Carrick, or right behind the strike-force. And yet, Carrick’s current creative partner, Cleverley is stronger than Thiago, despite having a similar style.
Thiago has been projected as the answer to all of their midfield problems. This could not be further from the truth. He will take several games to get accustomed to the pace and aggression of the English league. It will take him even longer to positively affect United’s play. He is, after all, only 22 years of age.
Honestly – and take this from a Barcelona fanatic – Thiago would do better to move on than remain an unhappy figure at the club. And for all of Tito Vilanova’s promises, he still does not appear ready for regular first team duty.
Though Xavi now appears to be on his last legs, with injuries catching up with him, Fabregas is the much more viable heir apparent. But, United wouldn’t benefit as much in his presence, as is being made out, and Barcelona don’t stand to lose as much.