Statistically, football players have the ball at their feet for three minutes on an average. So what they do during the 87 minutes when they don't have the ball determines whether they are a good player or not. - Johan Cruyff
Football has evolved to such a stage at the global level where the direct contribution of a player on the pitch, in terms of goals scored, assists made, and clean sheets and saves, has become just a redundant measure of judging a player.
A lot of secondary attributes have come into the picture. The positioning of a player, style of pressing when the opposition is in possession, and abilities with the ball at his feet like first touch and passing accuracy are but a few in this respect.
Many players in world football are highly under-rated because of their indirect impact on games that are overshadowed by a few moments of magic from their team-mates. Such players usually operate from the background for their teams. But they are the most important ones in the jigsaw puzzle that the manager tries to put together while selecting his XI for every game.
Notable examples of such players would be FC Barcelona's Sergio Busquets and Bayern Munich's Thiago Alcantara.
On the importance of the defensive midfielder, whose statistics do not seem eye-catching on-paper, Spain's World Cup-winning coach Vicente del Bosque once said, "If you watch the game, you probably won't notice Busquets. But if you closely watch Busquets, you would be able to see the entire game."
But, Busquets is one of those few rare players who are fundamental to the team, and have received praises from fans and coaches alike. Many fans would agree to the fact that the domination of the Spanish midfield by Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Busquets in the last few years led to Barcelona losing out on another superstar in the defensive midfield position - Thiago Alacantara.
Alcantara's pedigree is aptly evident in the fact that when Pep Guardiola left Barcelona to join Bayern Munich, he mentioned to the Bavarian board about his rebuilding plans: "Thiago or nothing".
From La Masia to Munich
Thiago Alcantara is a product of the esteemed La Masia youth academy of Barcelona. However, he failed to cement his position in the Catalans' first team as his debut season saw the surge of Spain's terrific midfield trio - Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. This was despite Alcantara winning the Under-21 European Championship with Spain in which he captained the side, and also scored a hat-trick in the final against Italy.
As Barcelona failed to provide enough first-team football to the Spaniard, his buyout clause dropped to €18 million from a high of €90 million. Bayern Munich were quick to pounce on the opportunity and responded by triggering Alcantara's release clause to unite the midfielder with former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola in Munich.
I spoke to the club about my concept and told them why I want Thiago. He is the only player I want. It'll be him or no one. - Pep Guardiola to the press prior to Alcantara's signing.
From a rough start to the first name on the team-sheet
The midfielder who plays as a single or double pivot for Bayern Munich has been the fulcrum of the Munich team for the last few years. But Alcantara did not hit the ground running in Bavaria. Far from it.
Fate seemingly had other plans for Alcantara as he was beset by long-term injuries upon his arrival in Munich. In his first two and a half seasons in Bavaria, the midfielder only managed a cumulative 50 appearances for the first team. However, after putting his injury problems behind him, there was no looking back for Alcantara.
As Bastian Schweinsteiger's time at Die Rotten drew to a close and fellow Spaniard Xabi Alonso played in a deeper defensive position, Alcantara was allowed full freedom by Guardiola to play higher up the pitch, and take control of the midfield. This move enabled the midfielder to unleash his potential to the hilt.
In a sign of his technical prowess, Alcantara featured in over 85% of Bayern games in all competitions in the last five years. He is often one of the first names on the team sheet.
Defined as an 'aesthetic midfielder' by pundits worldwide, Alcantara is renowned for his dribbling abilities from deep positions, and starting attacks for his team. Even when pressed by multiple opposition players, Alcantara manages to squeeze his way out, and create scoring opportunities for his colleagues further upfield.
But this isn't the only reason why the 29-year-old is highly regarded by every coach to have managed Bayern Munich in the last seven years.
Alcantara's off-the-ball contribution to the team is impressive. Glimpses of La Masia are still on show at the Allianz Arena, as the midfielder's sense of positioning is one of the best in the game.
When under attack from the opposition, Alcantara tracks back into the space between the two central defenders, in the process providing Bayern an extra man in defence. When Bayern are on the attack, Alcantara, from his deep-lying playmaker role, tries to puncture holes in the opposition midfield by threading passes to his forward line.
The midfielder, who possesses some of the best ball control abilities in European club football, brings much-needed calmness to the Bayern midfield by breaking up opposition attacks, and threading passes upfield.
Alcantara is rarely seen in advanced positions and is more than happy to be away from the limelight, tirelessly performing his highly technical but backstage role at the Bavarian club without any qualms. His contribution to the team cause is aptly reposed by the Munich club's faith in the abilities of their star man.
Awards and accolades on players are bestowed predominantly on their performances in big games. Alcantara may not have won too many individual awards in this regard, but the Spanish midfielder is not one to complain either. The Bayern midfield artist would wake up every day with the same mindset to perform his best for the team cause.
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