The injury to Thiago Alcantara costs Bayern Munich their most in-form player and the glue that has held Carlo Ancelotti’s tactical plans together this season. While the timeline for Alcantara’s return is up in the air, as with all thigh injuries there is an inherent fickleness that could end up costing Thiago more time than anticipated. It could be a month. It could the remainder of the season.
As we’ve seen in the recent past with Holger Badstuber, Xherdan Shaqiri, Arjen Robben, or Thiago himself, thigh injuries turn into chronic injuries that can plague players for entire seasons with regularity. Losing a midfield maestro in this manner is the kind of loss that could end up defining the rest of the season; especially considering the lack of depth behind Thiago.
For all the talent Bayern can bring to bear in midfield, they don’t have a player capable of the full range of midfield skills Thiago possesses. From operating as a deep-lying playmaker to box-to-box runs to playing behind the main striker, Thiago is a versatile midfielder who can prop the offense, or be the offensive supplement himself. He can run and control the whole game from midfield. Arturo Vidal, Renato Sanches, and Joshua Kimmich accomplish some of those functions but none bring the whole package and pair it with incisive creativity the way Thiago does.
And neither is Xabi Alonso a suitable replacement in the biggest of matches despite his skill as a deep lying playmaker. The Spanish international is not capable of creative movement or secondary runs from midfield. His physical age limits him to controlling the game — in itself, an important skill — but his days as the dynamic force behind an entire offense are in the past.
Bayern can attempt to replace Thiago by committee but they don’t need another box-to-box midfielder. Arturo Vidal is a singularly imposing figure on the field and adding Sanches or Kimmich into the mix as the third man creates confusion in midfield. Using Kimmich and Sanches allows Bayern a healthy mix of creative play and box-to-box control, but their inexperience and overall similarity creates a midfield mixture that balances on the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it can fail.
The final option for Bayern Munich is to shift Thomas Müller behind the main striker. This alleviates the midfield congestion created by pairing Vidal with another box-to-box midfielder and gives Vidal and Alonso focused roles in midfield, but potentially decreases the chances that Kimmich and Sanches see quality time on the pitch. Neither of those two have excelled when played in a double pivot prior and while that certainly could simply be due to practice, it may be a chance Bayern can’t take moving into the crunch phase of the season.
Going forward, the best option is likely some degree of rotation between the two types of systems. Playing Vidal/Alonso behind Müller gets Bayern Munich’s best assets on the field at the same time, while allowing a 3-man midfield rotation of Kimmich and Sanches allows Bayern to rest Vidal or Alonso as may be required. But doing so requires Carlo Ancelotti to be willing to move away from the 4-3-3 formation he’s played exclusively this season. While Thiago’s perfect fit in that formation belied its use — and his almost steadfast refusal to shift away from it — how Ancelotti sets up all the pieces he needs to work around Thiago’s abence is going to to be key. Ancelotti has five matches to figure that out before Arsenal comes to town.