Following Bayern Munich’s Champions League final victory on Sunday, manager Hans Flick all but confirmed the recent rumors that Thiago Alcantara has decided to leave the club. Most reports claim that Liverpool is his preferred destination. Liverpool fans went into a frenzy — they knew he didn’t fit the transfer structure of their ownership group, but he’s really good and he could be the piece that extends the life of their team for another two years. Liverpool ownership hasn’t seen it that way and so far they refuse to pay the £30 million fee Bayern want.
Wait, did you say £30 million for Thiago? Ole! Ed! Get on the phone with Bayern and sign this lad!
That’s been the general consensus of United fans online the past few days.
Well, I’m here to tell you that signing Thiago would be a bad idea for United.
Let’s start with the obvious. Is Thiago a world class midfielder?
Pretty much yes. If you put him next to Paul Pogba you easily have two of the best midfielders in the world in your team.
Is that what United need?
I mean, they don’t not need it. They definitely need a backup to Pogba/Bruno Fernandes, and Thiago can take on that creative burden. They also need someone who can become a viable long term replacement for Nemanja Matić. Thiago can easily usurp Matić from the team but long term? Well, we’ll get to that later.
Does Thiago actually want to leave Bayern?
Despite Liverpool wavering on the transfer fee, no other team has even been linked to him, which means his agent hasn’t been dropping other clubs’ names into the media in an effort to get Liverpool to get the move done. Hmm.
So that tells us that either Thiago isn’t unhappy at Bayern but just wants to go to Liverpool, or he was trying to use Liverpool as a means to get better wages. If it’s the latter, it didn’t work. Bayern have called Thiago’s bluff and said “Cool, if anyone pays £30 million you can go!”
That’s another reason to be skeptical. Bayern Munich never let players go in their prime. When Bayern are willing to let a player go, alarm bells should be going off. They know something.
Remember two summers ago when José Mourinho wanted Jerome Boateng? Well, Bayern were desperate to get rid of him that summer. Turns out everyone figured out why — the player started to fade after about 70 minutes. For a center back Boateng gets subbed off an awful lot.
Remember Bastian Schweinsteiger?
Owen Hargreaves was only 26 when Bayern let him go, and he was influential in United winning the Premier League and Champions League double in his first season. But it turns out that the player who had knee problems at Bayern... had knee problems that ended up destroying his career.
Bayern always know.
This part is speculation on my end but it sounds like Thiago, whom many consider to be one of the world’s best midfielders, wants to be paid like one of the world’s best midfielders. Bayern don’t want to pay him that kind of money because: how much longer will he still be one of the world’s best midfielders? (This is the reason David Alaba wants to leave. He wants to be paid like one of the top players at the club and Bayern don’t want to).
Bayern are a very smart and well run club. They don’t want to pay that money because they don’t want to fall into the classic trap of paying a player for what he’s done rather than what he will do.
That is why United shouldn’t be going after Thiago. Because Thiago is 29 years old.
For a long time the prevailing thought was that athletes in most sports hit the prime of their careers from the ages of around 28 to 32. We now have enough data to know that’s not true — especially for footballers. Footballers tend to peak at the age of 28 (26 for attacking players). They still perform at a high level until around 30 before their performance starts to really drop off.
That means, at 29, you may still be performing at a high level, but your best years are already behind you.
This is why no one in the data community is surprised by Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann’s struggles this season. It’s why everyone (even pre-coronavirus) expects there to be a permanent shift away from £100 million deals for 28-year-old players.
Watching players continue to perform at a high level when they’re age 28 or 29 of course makes them enticing. They’ve proven they could get the job done, and our perception is that they have a lot of time left. They usually don’t.
To help illustrate this I took a look at a few players from United’s past. Some of them were world class, some less so.
I highlight the age of when a player broke into senior football because that’s important. Your legs wear every mile that you’ve ever put on them. Once you put too many miles on them they start to break down.
For most players that breaking point typically comes after 10-11 years of regularly playing senior football (plus internationals). Most top players break in between around 18 to 20, so that breaking point comes around 29 or 30. If you broke in even earlier, it’ll come earlier.
Take Robin van Persie. When the Dutchman signed with United his transfer was questioned. This wasn’t the typical Sir Alex Ferguson signing. Van Persie was 29 when he signed and would have little resale value. It’s important to remember, however, that United weren’t building a team around him — he was the final piece to get them a title.
But Van Persie was world class. Look at what he did in his final two years at Arsenal.
In his previous two years he started 56 matches and minutes-wise played the equivalent of 28.3 games a season. That chart is in the league only. He also played in the Champions League and cup games. For context, Van Persie made 194 Premier League appearances for Arsenal, but 278 in all competitions. Those minutes count too. As do all the minutes he played in the 70 caps he received for Holland before joining United.
At 29, Van Persie didn’t hit the heights he had in his final two years at Arsenal but he still turned in a world class season for United. At 30 his production was still there but but injuries started creeping in. By 31 he was a shell of himself.
What about Alexis Sánchez?
Sánchez was terrific at Barcelona before really getting to another level at Arsenal. It seems barely believable now, but when United signed him most of us were really excited. The guy had been sensational the past few years.
He was also 29 when he came to Old Trafford — the same age as Thiago is now.
Coming off a 24 goal 10 assist season, Sánchez started his 10th pro season at Arsenal. His numbers dipped but they were still decent. Everyone just assumed the dip was due to him wanting to leave Arsenal.
That obviously wasn’t the case, because as soon as Sánchez did leave Arsenal his numbers dropped even further. Yes, I know that was a José Mourinho team, but when Sánchez arrived United were scoring 2.04 goals a game. Arsenal were only scoring 1.43 goals a game while Sanchez was with them that season.
The more likely reason for the drop off was that by the time Sánchez had joined United he had already 230 league games in his career and won a whopping 120 international caps. That’s in addition to all the cup and Champions League games he’d played in.
His legs just simply gave out.
Wayne Rooney is United’s all time goal scoring leader with 253 goals. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t slow him down — he scored 19 goals and had 22 assists in David Moyes’ season. But his 29th birthday did. Rooney scored 219 of his 253 goals before the age of 29, and just 34 in the nearly three seasons after. By Louis van Gaal’s second season, he looked washed up.
Rooney and Sánchez were both still capable of the spectacular — Rooney’s record breaking free kick, Sánchez’s performance vs. City — because that’s what elite players can do. They still have that talent and ability, but they are rarely able show it past their prime.
Another interesting one is Juan Mata. Mata arrived at United at the age of 25, still in his prime and theoretically still getting better.
Mata’s time at United has been marred by managers who either didn’t know how to use him or whose style didn’t suit him. But surprisingly, Mata’s production didn’t actually drop all that much.
David Moyes had no idea how to use Mata and he still pulled his production back up to where it was when he was player of the year for Chelsea. He was never preferred by Van Gaal or Mourinho but he still produced as you’d expect someone to in their prime (but just after their peak years). United didn’t get the best of Mata because they just didn’t play him enough. He wasn’t first choice under any manager.
And since Mata turned 30? Well, it looks exactly like you’d expect — a significant drop in production.
Even under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even in a team that was dying for the creativity that Mata can bring, he struggled to make an impact this year. Of course he had his moments, but they were few and far between.
Nemanja Matić arrived at United at 28. He had a great first year. But by December of last season he looked shot. We were ready for him to be gone in the first half of this year only to see him resurrect his career. But when he’s tired, he’s a completely different player — not a good one — and at 32 years old the number of minutes he can play before he gets tired keeps getting smaller and smaller.
There are obvious exceptions here. Every trend has outliers. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick played well into their 30s. Ryan Giggs played until he was 40.
But none of those players were big money signings when they were 30. They were stars in their 20s who took on smaller roles as they got older. Their contracts were renewed on a year by year basis. They didn’t play every week, to maximize their effectiveness, and they weren’t on massive wages. They came up big at times but were also exposed in big moments (2011 Champions League final, Carrick at the Emirates in 2015). Scholes only started nine games his final year — none of them big matches.
Outliers are outliers for a reason; they’re very rare.
Elsewhere, Luka Modrić is looking an exception to this trend, but then you remember that he has missed significant time due to injuries in four of the past six seasons. Those injuries started creeping up when, you guessed it, he turned 29.
That brings us back to Thiago. We haven’t even mentioned his injury record yet. What does that look like?
Whoa. I’m not a medical expert but based on years of watching sports, players who have long injury histories before they turn 30 typically don’t magically heal themselves after they turn 30. Remember Owen Hargreaves?
If Bayern are letting you leave, there’s usually a reason why.
This just isn’t the time to sign Thiago. Would he make United better next year? Undoubtedly.
But what about in two years? The odds of him being another Robin van Persie who gives us one world class year before coming back to earth are much higher than the odds of him giving us three really good years. The odds of injuries rearing their ugly head are also high.
What happens then? What happens if in two years he’s just more deadwood that needs to be moved along (right next to Matić). That’s typically what happens with players over 30, even the world class ones.
If United were one piece away from competing to win the league or the Champions League and that one piece was a midfielder, this would be a different question. If that was the case, taking two bad years in exchange for one good one would have well been worth it — but that’s not the situation United are in.
There are already questions over how much money United actually have to spend. Frankly, United probably don’t even know. There are so many unknowns about next season (when will fans come back, etc.) that projecting revenue is nearly impossible.
It may seem like £30 million is a bargain for a player of Thiago’s ability. But that’s £30m plus agents’ fees, plus wages, plus bonuses. Suddenly, it’s not as cheap as you think, and United obviously have needs elsewhere.
Manchester United are still building. With Thiago or without him, (even with Thiago and Jadon Sancho) they’re still not there next year. They can’t sacrifice their rebuild to shoehorn in a player at the tail end of his prime — that’s what Mourinho would do. And we know how well that worked out.