Of the Spanish U-21 squad that attracted much attention for their European Championship victory this summer, Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara was perhaps the player singled out for most praise. Born in Italy to Brazilian World Cup-winner Mazinho, Thiago elected to represent Spain after spending much of his youth at Barcelona’s famed cantera. His assured displays in the Spanish midfield drew comparisons with his Barcelona teammate Xavi, the player many see him as the successor to.
A fellow cantera graduate, Xavi’s playing style is seen as the template for Thiago’s game. Both are exponents of the short passing style that has brought Barça and the Spanish national team so much success in recent years. Much is expected of Thiago and it seems certain that 2011-2012 will be a defining season for the 20 year-old.
Though currently betraying no noticeable signs of decline, 31 year-old Xavi cannot be expected to perform to his astonishing levels with the same regularity in the coming seasons. This suggests that Thiago can expect to enjoy more than the 11 league appearances afforded to him last season; but with Cesc Fàbregas finally joining Barcelona from Arsenal, you would forgive Thiago for thinking that his chance to shine in a midfield role on a regular basis would never come. The new four-year contract he signed in June should go some way to allay any fears, as will a starting berth in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Real Madrid (though he was eventually replaced by Xavi).
Despite the vote of confidence from Guardiola in selecting Thiago to start that match, Thiago appeared to lack the self-assurance that was apparent during the European Championships. He failed to dictate the tempo of the game, a key responsibility for anyone looking to compete with Xavi, and Barcelona were uncharacteristically short of possession as a result. Outplaying the midfield duo of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira at the Bernabéu, however, was never going to be an easy task so Thiago should not be too disheartened. A phenomenal pre-season in which he scored four goals ensures Guardiola has enough reason to stand by Thiago and give him his chance to make an impact.
Guardiola’s willingness to promote players from La Masia is well-documented. Sergio Busquets and Pedro are the most notable examples, but Guardiola has also handed first-team opportunities to the likes of Martín Montoya, Andreu Fontàs and Jeffrén. Like Thiago this year, much was expected of the since-departed Jeffrén at the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign. Jeffrén was given the number 11 shirt and seemed set for a prominent role in the season to come. What followed was an underwhelming year of limited opportunities and lacklustre performances (the fifth goal in the Nou Camp annihilation of Real Madrid aside) and his eventual transfer to Sporting CP this summer was no great surprise.
For all of Thiago’s undoubted talent, it is worth remembering Jeffrén’s struggles to match the high expectations of Barcelona supporters. Early promise is no guarantee of a successful time at the Nou Camp, as fellow cantera graduate Bojan will testify. Under Guardiola, Bojan could never quite recapture the form he enjoyed when he first broke into the Barça team and this transfer window has seen him leave Barcelona for Luis Enrique’s AS Roma. Though there is nothing to suggest that Thiago will follow in Bojan and Jeffrén’s frustrated footsteps, he would be advised to at least take notice of the respective struggles of his former teammates.
Competition for places in Barcelona’s side has never been fiercer thanks to the additions of Alexis Sánchez from Udinese and, more pertinently for Thiago, Cesc Fàbregas. Thiago will need to maintain his imperious pre-season form if he is to see off his competitors for starting places. It’s difficult to argue that he lacks the ability to make it as a Barcelona player and, if all goes smoothly, this should be Thiago’s breakthrough season, much like when Pedro and Sergio Busquets came to the fore in 2009-2010. If Thiago does fulfill his obvious potential, Barcelona’s supporters will have no reason to fear Xavi’s eventual retirement.