Thiago signing for Manchester United isn't a certainty at this point in time, but the club's pursuit appears to be entering the final straight. If the deal does go through as anticipated, how might the prodigious 22-year-old fit in at Old Trafford?
Thiago Alcântara do Nascimento joined FC Barcelona's famed youth academy -- La Masia -- in 2005 and he made his first-team debut as an 18-year-old in May 2009. Since that time, he's arguably been the club's greatest youth product, however, his time with the first-team has been limited due to the midfield being congested by the world-class likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and Cesc Fabregas. This presumably is why the midfielder is pining for a move to the Theatre of Dreams.
Over the past week or so, whether the conversation be on this community, on Twitter, or in-person, I've continually been asked one question: which player does Thiago compare to or remind me of? In our review of the midfielder's hat-trick hero performance for Spain in their recent Euro Under-21 Championship final against Italy, I addressed the topic this way:
'I've been forthcoming that I struggle to find one because he seems an amalgam of a number of great players. Now this isn't to say that he'll become as successful as these players -- although he has he potential to do so -- but there are certain attributes he exhibits that he shares with the following: as mentioned, he has that ability to carry the ball forward like [Luka] Modric [while skipping past defenders], he has that Xavi quality in being able to dictate the tempo of a match (although he has a worrying tendency to make a loose pass in deep positions), he has close-control similar to Andres Iniesta so that he can maze through defenders, he times late-arriving runs into the box well and he has a thunderous long-range shot like Paul Scholes, and he has a David Silva or Mesut Ozil type of ability to slip in a penetrating through-ball for one of his fellow attackers. I'm not saying he does each of these things as well as these tremendous players, I'm just pointing out that he can do these things quite well.'
The system that Thiago is most familiar with is a possession-based 4-3-3. Perhaps there are slight variations of it between the different levels of Spain's national teams and at Barcelona, but many of the basic fundamentals are the same. At the Catalan club, Sergio Busquets sits in front of the back four as the holder and he brilliantly circulates the ball and seemingly always makes the right pass (he so often does this with incredibly quick one-touches). Xavi is the reliable metronome just ahead of Busquets and he's the player that conducts everything. Andres Iniesta is the most advanced of the midfield trio and he's tasked with being the incisive one with his penetrating passes and sensational dribbling ability.
The general acceptance has been that Thiago is being groomed to be the heir to the 33-year-old Xavi. Apparently though, the youngster fancies himself as more of an Iniesta type. Xavi is probably something in between of a No.6 and No.8 while Iniesta is probably something in between a No.8 and a No.10. Thiago is probably something in between of Xavi and Iniesta, so by this logic, perhaps, that makes him a No.8-ish type. And as someone who has closely watched him since the summer of 2011 (and wanted him at United since), I think that's an accurate generalization.
At this point in time, the best guess is that new manager David Moyes will make a 4-4-1-1 his side's primary shape. This is based on him using this shape almost exclusively at Everton and former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson using a similar system as his preferred one during his 26+ year reign at Old Trafford. If Thiago is to join United, he likely will be tasked with being a creative No.8 that has license to drive forward while Michael Carrick keeps things calm in behind him in a No.6 role.
Thiago isn't a physical presence by any means but he is energetic and willing to get stuck-in. His positioning could be a concern initially due to him being more familiar with Barcelona's and Spain's midfield structure, however, the physicality of the Premier League shouldn't be overwhelming. Carrick, too, will presumably be aware of when to be cautious of his forward ventures by being aware of Thiago's whereabouts.
If the Spaniard were to become more comfortable with the system and the organic movements within it, then United could see a midfield more fluid than at anytime in the Ferguson era. The thought of the passing triangles between Carrick, Thiago, and Kagawa is mouth-watering and with this supplemented by the versatile nature of many of United's attackers (i.e. Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Wilfried Zaha, Ashley Young, and possibly Nani and Wayne Rooney) ,the side could be irresistible at times.
Moyes, at heart, appears to be a reactive manager. Perhaps though, he'll be less so with such a talented squad like United's. Or perhaps not. In the past decade, even Ferguson, who fundamentally had an attack-minded ethos, became pragmatic and reactive at times, particularly in 'big' domestic and European ties. Moyes could adopt a similar pattern of approaches.
If the Scot wants to add more steel and structure to his midfield in 'big' games, he could go for a 4-3-3 (in possession)/4-5-1 (out of possession) system. Ferguson's 4-3-3/4-5-1, who was heavily influenced by former assistant Carlos Queiroz, tilted his midfield slightly different than other '4-3-3's. Barcelona staggers theirs as previously described while the shape of other's typically more resembles a 4-1-2-3 (e.g. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea). Ferguson's generally had two deep central-midfielders in front of the back four while a more advanced midfielder supported the front three -- perhaps this shape could be described as a 4-2-1-3. If Moyes wants to adopt a similar shape as Ferguson's 4-3-3/4-5-1, or even one more staggered in 'big' games, he could use Thiago as the creative and driving player that supports a front three.
Theoretically, a combative player like Phil Jones could join Thiago and Carrick in this scenario or an energetic and passing player like Tom Cleverley could fit in as well. Kagawa being deployed on the left in attack, in similar nature to the way he's deployed for Japan, could help link the midfield and attack in a fluid nature. This would be well supplemented by the likes of van Persie, Welbeck and Zaha in attack.
The signing of Robin van Persie was brilliant, and he arguably gave United the needed injection of genius that Eric Cantona provided in his first season. However, a player like Thiago -- a young player with obvious and world-class talent that just screams out at you-- appears to be an appropriate player to be Moyes' first major signing and (hopefully) the start of another successful managerial era.