On Friday night, Barcelona will be facing Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the Champions League. Thiago Alcântara, one of La Masía’s former graduates, will be facing his former team Barça. The Spaniard has been sensational for Die Roten. This raises the question of should Barcelona have let such a talent leave?
In 2013, Thiago Alcântara left Catalonia and moved to Bayern Munich. At the time, the blaugranas were blessed with incredible talent in midfield with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets almost irreplaceable. However, the young Thiago was still getting game time in a strong Barcelona side. He had great mentors to learn from and understood the principles of the club.
Everything seemed to be going well and many saw him as the ideal replacement for the ageing Xavi. In the end, the board sold one of the brightest talents at the club for £22.50 million. Many culés will see this as a mistake as Thiago has developed into one of the best midfielders in the world.
The current one has been one of, if not the, best seasons in Thiago’s career | Photo by Sebastian Widmann / Bongarts via Getty Image
Around the time that Thiago left Barcelona, a new era was beginning at the club. Pep Guardiola had brought about one of the greatest dynasties in footballing history, playing Johan Cruyff football to near perfection. Under Pep, many youth team players were promoted such as Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and Thiago. Guardiola was perfect for developing youth and put a big emphasis on this. He trusted the Barça B youngsters and gave them game time to help them grow. Joan Laporta, the president of Barcelona until 2010, was a big supported of this and supported youth development and Cruyff football. It was the perfect time for a young Thiago Alcântara to come through the ranks at the club.
However, when the new president was appointed in 2010, it saw this decade change drastically for Barcelona. Sandro Rosell marked the end of successful Cruyff football and La Masía became less important. The world-famous academy has been sadly neglected and youth players have suffered because of this. When Pep left in 2012, it was rumoured to be due to bad relations with the board. Rosell was the beginning of a decade for Barcelona that has been driven by money and not by football. Josep Maria Bartomeu, his successor, has carried on this pattern with questionable transfers, overpaying players and neglecting youth.
In 2013, when Guardiola was announced as the new Bayern Munich manger, it was no surprise that one of the first signings he made was one of his Barça protégées Thiago Alcântara. Rosell being too blind to see what a talent he was and Thiago having the option to link up with his former manager, it was a good move for the Spaniard. Since then, he has gone on to win many trophies with the German side and establish himself as a world class player. The now 29-year-old is a complete midfielder, both in defending and creating. He has an intelligent footballing brain and an incredible dribbling ability. His range of passing is sensational, and he is a joy to watch. Thiago Alcântara is a perfect fit for Barça.
“Thiago is the only player I want, that’s what I told them. It’ll be him or no one”
When you consider how much money Barcelona has spent trying to build a midfield since Alcantara left, it is staggering. Players such as Iván Rakitić, André Gomes, Denis Suárez, Arthur Melo, Frenkie de Jong, Paulinho and Arturo Vidal have all joined to varying degrees of success. Alex Song and Cesc Fàbregas were also bought in 2012 and 2011 respectively, a year or two before Thiago left. It is difficult to argue that any of them have reached the heights of the Bayern player, so far. If Barcelona had trusted their La Masía player then half of these signings would not have been made.
This transfer window it looks like the midfield maestro is set to leave the Bavarian club for a reduced price as his contract has one year remaining. Though 29 and being injury prone in the past, it would have been a smart signing for the azulgranas to make. Instead, due to the financial problems through years of reckless spending, Barça were forced into transfers to balance the books. They could have signed a midfielder that understands the Barcelona style and way of playing.
So many players that have signed over the last decade have failed to adapt to the club. Thiago is a prime example of why La Masía players should be trusted more. In the end, the Catalana lost one of the best academy graduates and have failed to replace his talents since. It is one of many poor transfers this decade which the board still has not learned from. When considering talents like Riqui Puig, the club cannot make the same mistake again. Buying midfielders that take away vital game time from the young prospect is damaging. He needs to play regularly and develop his game knowing he has the support of the club.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.