An important season for Barcelona’s latest bright young star

by Darragh Fitzpatrick

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.

2 Responses

  1. Varun says:

    You forgot to mention the most important reason Jeffrén failed. His frail body.

    He kept getting injured. Barca infact even tested his perfumes,etc to check why he gets injured so often.

    As for Bojan, He did play a Title winning part in 2009-10 Liga season, If it wasn’t for him, Barca might have lost the TItle.

    And for Thiago, if he wants to succeed at Barca he needs to have patience, Iniesta wasn’t a full team regular until he was 23.
    Hence as for Thiago the season isn’t that important, (so as to result in his exit )

    Pep promoted him fully this season and Pep likes to give people chances and 1 season isn’t enough time, hence even if he doesn’t do much, He’ll still be around next season if Pep stays.

    1. Firstly, sorry for my late reply.

      The point on Jeffrén is a valid one but I can’t help but feel that Jeffrén didn’t show enough when he was fit to warrant another season at Barça. Of course, this may simply have been due to a lack of confidence as a result of his constant injuries but I can understand Guardiola’s decision to sell either way.

      It’s true that Bojan played an important role in Barcelona victories but it was ultimately not enough to save him. He never quite realised the potential he showed when he first broke on to the scene and a fresh start for Bojan at Roma looks like the best option for all parties.

      I agree that Guardiola is very unlikely to judge Thiago after this season alone, but I do feel that Thiago himself might be discouraged if he sits on the bench all season. That’s why I think it’s important that he makes an impact this season, rather than having his head turned by clubs offering first-team football next summer. I’m convinced, however, that Thiago is talented enough to make a real impression this season and give Guardiola enough reason to hand him a regular starting berth.

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