Face of the future Thiago coming of age in Munich


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Germans do love their compound nouns, and with Thiago Alcantara's display against Eintracht Frankfurt last weekend, they were able to employ 'Ballmagnete', which is pretty much self-explanatory.

The reason is that the Spanish international touched the ball no fewer than 177 times during the course of the game - almost twice a minute over the 90 - to set a new Bundesliga record in the category. Symbolically, he surpassed Bayern Munich team-mate Bastian Schweinsteiger, who - with 155 touches against Hertha Berlin on the final day of the 2009-10 season - had held the record for nearly three years. 'Schweini', once the hub of the Bayern team himself, is now finding Thiago has also eased past him in that regard.

The former Barcelona man's current stratospheric standing is in stark contrast to the doubts very publicly aired last summer when he seemed surplus to requirements in a squad that had swept all before them. Admittedly, my eyebrows were raised too when Bayern waived a cheque for some 20 milllion euros in front of Barcelona, who gleefully accepted. Still, I had been served notice first-hand of Thiago's talent three years ago when he was the centrepiece of a Spain side that defeated a Swiss line-up featuring his Bayern team-mate Xherdan Shaqiri at the U21 European Championship in Denmark.

And yet, for all his goosebump-provoking potential, Thiago was unable to establish himself at the Camp Nou. When he got injured against Nuremberg in his first Bundesliga start, for which he was ignominiously given a 5, the second-lowest mark possible, by esteemed German football magazine Kicker, Pep Guardiola said "We're going to miss him", that he was "a special player" and "very important" for the team. The sniggers must have been barely stifled.

Yet, how could anyone have doubted Guardiola, who stated the midfielder - the son of 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho and a Brazilian volleyball player - was his only summer transfer target? "It is either Thiago or no-one," the ex-Barça coach had declared publicly. Surely that in itself - when you consider Bayern's sky-high footballing stock and significant funds - spoke volumes. They could have signed virtually anyone, yet Guardiola singled out Thiago as the man required to improve on a squad that appeared flawless.

Now everyone can see what he was talking about, particularly with Schweinsteiger struggling with injury this season. Thiago's ability to "play three, four, five positions", as Guardiola pointed out when the player moved to Bavaria, gives the Bayern boss more options than 'Schweini' affords as the ex-Barça man slips seamlessly from the defensive midfield position alongside Philipp Lahm into one of the attacking midfield quartet roles in the 4-1-4-1.

Though Guardiola recently stated the team still needs Schweinsteiger, the German international is surely destined to find himself forced increasingly into a bit-part role. Not only is Thiago's passing range superior and his legs younger - he turns 23 in April - but he is a greater threat at the business end of the pitch, an area where Schweinsteiger has largely disappointed, as a goal and three assists in just nine Bundesliga outings testifies. "To do something like that in the last second of such a game comes from an enormous amount of quality," stated Stuttgart's gob-smacked sporting director Fredi Bobic after Thiago's über-brilliant volleyed winner - a Seitfallzieher in compound-noun-land - in Bayern's recent 2-1 triumph. "He's a fantastic footballer, just in the wrong shirt."

It is unlikely Bayern will make the same mistake as Barça and allow Thiago to get anywhere near the end of his four-year deal at the Allianz Arena before offering him a longer - and no doubt improved - deal. "I wanted to feel valued, and the club didn't do anything to make me stay," Thiago said after leaving Catalonia. "Anyway, you can't dwell on the past - it's better to look to the future." If he is gazing toward that horizon, he had better have sunglasses on.

Ian Holyman, on Twitter @ian_holyman

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