Thiago Alcantara’s time at Bayern Munich has been nothing short of a revelation. From the highly-rated 14-boy at La Masia to becoming one of the best midfielders in recent years at Bayern, Alcantara has definitely lived up to his hype and his ability as a player. Pep Guardiola insisted on him in his first season at the club and became his first signing as well. The 29-year old Spaniard has played a major role in each of the Bundesliga titles wins in the last seven years since his arrival while also winning four DFB Pokals, three Supercups, and a Club world cup among others.
Reports in Germany in the last few months however have strongly linked Thiago to a move away to the Premier League, to Liverpool in particular. It is stated that Thiago feels it is time to try “something new” in his career and is looking for greener pastures abroad. This would, however, leave a massive hole to be filled under coach Hansi Flick’s tactics because it is no simple task to look for a replacement for someone who has been one of the best since his arrival at the club and a world-class midfielder in general.
This data analysis aims to do that exact task – to find a suitable replacement for Thiago at FC Bayern Munich using data and statistics. Some of the metrics chosen for this analysis are among- central and defensive midfielder in Europe’s top 5 leagues all 25 or under in age, having played 1000 minutes or more this season in their respective leagues. It goes without saying that these players should also be available in the market. This would shortlist some of the names that are similar in their profiles to Thiago and are ready to make a leap at a bigger club such as Bayern.
Before we look at these players in the analysis, it is firstly important to hone into the major traits and characteristics that Thiago himself possesses and understand the potential mould of a player that would be required to replace him in the role he plays at the club so that they can break into the first team.
Thiago’s role at Bayern has been as a central midfielder in a double-pivot alongside Joshua Kimmich. His unique dribbling and ball-carrying ability is world-class and is lauded around Europe. He is an efficient passer with a 90% pass accuracy and is solid enough defensively to partner Kimmich in a double pivot. Thiago ranks 3rd this season in dribbles completed per 90 and passes into the final third. His progressive ball carries are numbered around 78 per game covering around 172.4m with his progressive carries, which is an incredible stat. The Spaniard naturally, also covers a lot of ground and his long passes are his stand-out trait; 445m progressed by passing. Prospective players hence should be 1) be comfortable to play in a double-pivot, 2) have outstanding defensive abilities, 3) be great with the ball to their feet in terms of dribbling, ball carrying and passing, and finally 4) be available in the transfer market.
It will be difficult to single-out players from our criteria to match Thiago but potential players close to the Spaniard can certainly be found. From a list of around 55-60 players, scatter plots were created to display certain in-game statistics.
In this section of the data analysis, we focus our attention on the players’ ball-carrying and progressive passing statistics. Progressive runs completed by a player simply describe a player’s ability to advance forward with the ball from deeper positions. The player we want should be able to match Thiago’s 13.58 progressive passes per game, which is second in Europe’s top 5 leagues only behind Paris Saint Germain midfielder Leandro Paredes.
It’s clear from the scatter plot above that 4 midfielders, in particular, emerge as solid options in the aspect we are discussing.
First, Fabian Ruiz, the Spanish metronome playing for Napoli in the Italian Serie A. Ruiz is extremely balanced in both departments, he completes 2.55 progressive-runs per game which is 28th and 9.68 progressive passes, 27th among central and defensive midfielders this season. Both are very impressive stats for the 24-year old.
Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli perhaps stands out the most in both categories. The 22-year old Italian completes 8.86 progressive passes and 2.67 runs per game, providing for a solid profile.
Houssem Auoar and Gaetano Castrovilli, play a role more that is usually more advanced as against the others, and perhaps comes as no surprise that the young Frenchman and Italian make 3.25 and 3.34 progressive-runs per game respectively and are ranked 10th and 8th in Europe among central and defensive midfielders in that regard respectively.
It comes as a given that a player should excel in the defensive aspect of the game, in order to function effectively in Bayern’s double pivot. Two plots were created for this regard; putting possession adjusted interceptions against successful defensive actions per 90, and % of defensive duels won against defensive actions per game. The former recognizes all midfielders at a neutral standing when it comes to how their teams set up focusing more on their defensive contribution (in this case interceptions). Defensive duels won% indicate a player’s ability to stop an opposition attack and win the ball back. Our player in focus, Thiago, completes close to 10.33 successful defensive actions per game with a 67% accuracy in defensive duels won, placing him 22nd in Europe’s top 5 leagues among midfielders.
According to the images above, 5 distinct names can further be observed- Saul Niguez, Wilfried Ndidi, Ismael Bennacer, Eduardo Camavinga, and Denis Zakaria. These can further be filtered according to their availability in the market, leaving us with Bennacer, Camavinga, and Zakaria. Defensive midfielders can clearly be seen outshining others in this department, which doesn’t come as a surprise
Ismael Bennacer has had a stellar season with AC Milan. He has proved solid at the base of their midfield and is also not hesitant in advancing down the pitch to join attacks. He completes 10.88 successful defensive actions per match, ranking him 18th in our selected pool of players while also having a 60% duel win%. His Padj metric stands at 6.65. The young Algerian is comfortable at both ends of the pitch.
17-year old Eduardo Camavinga has broken through the Rennes first team at an incredibly young age but is ranked 9th in successful defensive actions per 90 in our pool of players. He offers a wide skill set that includes dribbling, ball, carrying, and passing and is a brilliant box-to-box midfielder
Denis Zakaria has been stationed at Borussia Monchengladbach’s midfield for two seasons now. He is 1st on our list of players recording the highest successful duel% with a staggering 71% accuracy. He also completes just under 11 successful defensive actions per 90 with a Padj of 6.77. Impressive numbers.
As good a defensive profile that Thiago is, he doesn’t gamble on his attacking output. In Bayern’s free-flowing attack, Thiago dictates the tempo of the team and is continuously involved in the build-up. He is 3rd in the Bundesliga this season for passes into the final third with 185 to his name. He also completes 1.34 deep completions per 90. We hence created a scatter plot putting these metrics against each other to highlight players that have displayed real attacking prowess this season that match Thiago’s numbers.
The graph singles out 6 names, out of which we will again filter on the basis of their availability in the transfer market. These players are Serge-Milinkovic Savic, Fabian Ruiz, Bryan Cristante and Manuel Locatelli.
The players mentioned in the first category once again shine in this aspect- Fabian Ruiz and Manuel Locatelli. Both complete just over 11 passes into the final third per game and their deep completions are just as impressive- 1.7 and 1.28 respectively, placing the former at 4th place from our pool of midfielders.
Serbian international Sergej Milinkovic Savic’s active involvement in the final 3rd of the pitch is underscored by his 1.88 deep completions per game from our list. Deep completions are a great statistic that accurately indicates a player’s involvement in the form of passes completed in the final third of the pitch near the penalty area. Bryan Cristante, the 25-year old Italian at Roma also shines.
Thiago has a 90.4% pass completion in the Bundesliga this season, so his potential replacement must display an exceptional passing range to match him. The Spaniard also utilizes a wide variety of long passes throughout the pitch. The above-mentioned metric was used in our next analysis- to find a suitable passer of the ball matching Thiago’s profile and indicate how important they are in build-up play.
Just like two previous occasions, Fabian Ruiz and Manuel Locatelli stand out against the rest. According to the given graph, both midfielders complete roughly 65-73 passes per match, the former having a 91.4% accuracy placing him 4th among the collected data for midfielders this season and even narrowly eclipsing Thiago’s for the same. Locatelli, at 31st place with an 89% pass accuracy. These are brilliant numbers and those that quite evidently match those of Thiago.
Make-shift advanced midfielder Wylan Cyprien playing for OGC Nice in Ligue 1 covers more than 42 meters of distance with his long passes, which is the highest on the graph image but with an accuracy of a meager 55%.
Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos has always been lauded for his ball-playing ability and passing. The Spaniard completes close to 37 meters of distance with an accuracy of around 57%.
Ismael Bennacer, who stood out for his defensive ability makes another appearance on our list, this time for his passing. Just a spot below Locatelli, he records an 88.9% passing accuracy with over 57 passes per game, placing him 13th. The Algerian is clearly great in the defensive aspect but is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet and is able to complete a large number of passes during build-up.
Barcelona’s style of play means their build-up play involves a great deal of passing and possession-based football, hence it comes with no surprise that players like Arthur and Frenkie De Jong stand out well against the rest. Both rank among the top 4 from our list of players for passing accuracy- 92.67 and 91% respectively. They also complete around 70.7 and 64 passes per 90 minutes.
When it comes to distance covered by the passes, Manchester City’s Rodri stands well clear from the rest covering close to 40 meters with an 80% accuracy with his passing.
We now, finally see what results our data analysis has yielded and singled out 4 potential players that would seem great replacements for Thiago. Remember that this is a data analysis and the tactical side of the game must, therefore, be kept aside at this moment.
1.) Fabian Ruiz
The Spaniard playing for Gattuso’s Napoli in the Serie A has been among the best midfielders in Serie A this season. The young midfielder has been a crucial player in Gattuso’s system and this analysis has seen him excelling him in 3 main aspects of the game- his passing, his ball-carrying ability, and his attacking prowess. His 2.38 dribbles per 90 also add another dimension to his game. Ruiz is ranked first in the Serie A for the most number of touches as well. The Spanish international is already a very complete midfielder and his all-roundedness can come in handy for Bayern given he is still only 24 years old.
2.) Ismael Bennacer
The young Algerian international has been a breath of fresh air for Milan this season, excelling in a solid double-pivot alongside Frank Kessie. Bennacer’s defensive game, as we have seen, is top-notch and he is not afraid to venture forward as well. He ranks extremely high in categories like progressive, dribbling and attacking numbers as well. He is ranked 6th in the Serie A this season for successful dribble % with 80.8% and attempts around 3.03 dribbles per game. Bennacer is ranked 3rd and 4th for tackles and tackles won in the league this season at 89 and 58 respectively which further highlights his stellar defensive contributions. The 22-year old has proven that he can perform at a high level alongside another defensive midfielder and there is no doubt he would be comfortable slotting in with a world-class midfielder such as Kimmich.
3.) Eduardo Camavinga
There haven’t been many 17-year-olds making as big an impact as Eduardo Camavinga in Ligue 1 this season. The teenager’s performance against PSG last year was lauded; where single-handedly dominated the opposition midfield that consisted of Marco Verrati and Angel Di Maria. His passing is top-notch with an accuracy of 89% and while his traditional positioning is as a deep-lying playmaker, he isn’t afraid to advance forward with the ball as well. He leads Ligue 1 in tackles attempted with 98 in total and is also ranked 6th for most fouls drawn-an indication that opposition players see him as a threat and are drawn to him. He would prove to be a solid replacement for Thiago.
4.) Manuel Locatelli
The Italian has had one of the best seasons for midfielders in the league and is shining under Sassuolo’s set up in the Serie A. Just like Fabian Ruiz, Locatelli is quite a well-rounded midfielder that enjoys having the ball to his feet- underscored by his number of touches- 2390 this season placing him 5th. His defensive ability again is great as well- he sits 4th in the Serie A for tackles made and won, with 85 and 58 respectively. Locatelli is a superb playmaker and has shined in De Zerbi’s possession-based play at Sassuolo, being one of their crucial players.
Sergej Milinkovic Savic
The Serbian powerhouse has been a mainstay in Lazio’s midfield for over 3 years now and is progressing by the season. The 25-year-old offers a wide range of contributions on both sides of the pitch. He has 7 goals and 4 assists from central midfield this season, which are almost staggering numbers. His height means that he is able to win a substantial number of aerial duels as well- he ranks 4th in Serie A with 110 in total. Savic’s defensive numbers are brilliant as well- he ranks 6th in Serie A this season for tackles with 81 and 2nd in tackles won-59. He is extremely mobile on the pitch and his pressing is outstanding- placed 2nd overall with 692 pressures to his name.
In this data analysis, we used data to produce scatter-plots to explore how saw Thiago Alcantara’s player profile is extremely unique to Bayern and the club would initially struggle to replace him in case he does move away to the Premier League. We honed into 5 such players as a result of putting various statistics on a scatter plot and getting the required results. It is clear, a certain class of young midfielders do fit Thiago’s mold of a player and should be scouted further to know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and the tactical breakdown for the same.